Bringing Families to the Jewish Community in Belarus

July 11, 2012


Mirroring a common reaction among fellow Jewish 10-year-olds in Minsk, Belarus, Pavel’s eyes light up with excitement at the mere mention of “Shemesh” Camp at his local Jewish Community Center (JCC). That’s because Pavel can’t wait to join his friends for a 10-day session of fun and Jewish learning that will include trips to parks, museums, movies, and other attractions around Minsk.

With hundreds of kids and families attending the MinskJCC annual summer program, Jewish activities have become the new “in vogue” thing to do in the Belarusian capital.

For the past 20 years, JDC has exponentially expanded opportunities for Jews in Belarus and across the former Soviet Union (FSU) to connect with their local communities. In the process, Jewish family retreats have become a premier outreach activity, bringing together kids and families eager to take a holiday with rich Jewish content and offering a gateway into Jewish life year-round at Minsk’s JCC Emunah.

Pavel’s family reflects the trend: Last year, Pavel and his parents participated in the JDC-supported Summer Family Retreat operated by JCC Emunah. Pavel loved playing sports, learning about Jewish traditions and history, and making honeycomb Shabbat candles at arts and crafts with his friends. At the end of the retreat, the family came together and joined the Shabbat celebration.

“Lighting the candles as a community was remarkable for us,” said Pavel’s mom Natalia. “We wanted to continue the tradition, so we started coming to other JCC programs. And this year again we are returning for another retreat with the families we’ve befriended in our community.”

Pavel’s family will be among thousands of Jews participating in JDC-supported day programs, family retreats, and intergenerational Shabbatons taking place throughout the FSU this summer. During the year, local madrichim (counselors) are trained to lead arts and crafts, games, and sports competitions, and organize Jewish content-rich summer programming including storytelling, song sessions, and Jewish trivia contests. In a region where decades of communism ensured that families would not have Jewish traditions in their homes for generations, the programs serve as a gateway into Jewish life for many.

Some of the participants are invited through their affiliation with the JDC-supported Jewish Family Outreach Service (JFOS), which helps cover the costs for those who cannot afford to attend on their own, and also provides material, medical, psychological, educational, and vocational assistance to children and families in need, as well as special Jewish holiday celebrations and programs year-round for their client base.

Family retreats are not the only engagement opportunities for Jews in Belarus’s vibrant community. All year long, JCC Emunah, part of the capital’s one-stop Jewish “hub”—the Minsk Jewish Campus—offers a variety of programs to enable individuals and families, young and old, to explore Jewish traditions and culture through educational, cultural, and recreational opportunities in an inclusive community setting. The organization serves the existing Jewish community and attracts new families to Jewish life.

Pavel first came to JCC Emunah with his mother when he was two years old to attend the Mazal Tov Early Development Center. He’s been attending community events ever since. Today Pavel participates year round in arts programs, dance classes, and cultural activities at the center.

But last year was the family’s first time on a retreat together—and they couldn’t wait to come back.

This two summer family retreats will be held, for families from Minsk and from other cities throughout Belarus, rounding together some 200 participants. In addition, about 250 kids will attend day programs organized throughout the country.

“We are so grateful for these special opportunities to reconnect with our friends and learn more about our traditions together. We are so happy to have a place—a community—to call home,” Natalia says.

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