For Belarus Families, Making Jewish Memories

August 5, 2014


From birth, 15-year-old Yana Taratun has been an active member of the Jewish community of Minsk, the capital of Belarus and a city about the size of Philadelphia.

As an infant, Yana’s parents signed her up for the Mazel Tov Early Development Center at the city’s JDC-supported JCC (Jewish Community Center) Emunah. She attended a variety of different activities and clubs: dance, arts and crafts, singing, painting, and more.

A devoted volunteer, she now assists the Jewish community in running day camps, holiday celebrations, and other activities; and attends Szarvas, JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s pioneering international Jewish summer camp in Hungary each summer.

When Yana’s parents separated, she went to live with her father Andrey, 45, a realtor who’s also active at the local JCC, attending Family Club meetings, Shabbatonim with his daughter, and performing as part of the city’s Jewish family theater, Mishpocha.

But for both father and daughter, the signature Jewish event each year is the Summer Family Camp, one of 80-plus family retreats held throughout the former Soviet Union last summer that attracted more than 6,400 participants.

The retreats in Belarus, which is home to about 58,000 Jews, offer Jewish families the chance to fully immerse themselves in Jewish communal life, away from the pressures of work and school.

“The Summer Family Camp recharges my family,” Andrey said. “It fills us with tons of positive energy and a good mood that lasts the whole year.”

The family retreats offer a powerful model of inclusion and empowerment for even the most vulnerable Jews.

Daniel Dmitrochenko, 11, suffers from developmental issues and learning disabilities. Along with his mother Olga and father Alexander, he attended the 2013 Summer Family Camp, participating in activities aimed at deepening knowledge of participants’ Jewish traditions and strengthening families’ Jewish identity.

“It was our first Jewish getaway as a family, and it was a truly meaningful experience,” Olga said.

Upon their return, Daniel began participating in the Kids’ Club at JCC Emunah, making new friends while learning and playing. For the first time, he’s interacting with his peers and taking steps toward exploring a vibrant Jewish life.

The power of the retreats is not limited to Belarus. In late June, dozens of Georgian Jews — members of the Mishpocha Family Club of Tbilisi — traveled to the village of Tsilkani for a full-day Shabbaton, featuring a picnic, sports, Jewish lessons for the children, singing, dancing, and much more.

Zhanna Aivashvili participated along with her son, his wife, and her granddaughter Anastasia, who attends a preschool program at the Tbilisi Jewish Home.

Remarking on her first family retreat, Zhanna said she’s grateful for the opportunity to come closer to Judaism and spend quality time with her family.

“This retreat doesn’t only have a positive impact on the physical health of the adults and children,” she said. “What’s most important is that it helps us get to know each other better and spend quality time together. I’m so glad JDC gave my family that opportunity.”

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