Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience
Guest blogger: David Zetley, Camp Ramah in the Rockies
My alarm sounds – it’s 7:35 in the morning and I have never been more excited to be jolted awake by my phone’s alarm. I throw on a sweatshirt and walk down one floor where I meet my co-counselor Sara. We then wake our campers, 15- and 16-year-old Ukrainians, with a classic boisterous rendition of “Boker tov!” better known at Ramah Yachad as “доброе утро!” pronounced “Dobroye utro!”
I flashback to early April when I opened my inbox to find an email from Hillel Buechler introducing me to the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. I sat there staring at my phone wondering why Ramah was sending kids to Ukraine, questioning how many Jews actually live in Ukraine, and thinking “how could there possibly be a Jewish camp in the middle of Ukraine!?” After three days of living, eating (potatoes), and breathing Ramah Yachad, all my questions have been answered and my doubts placed aside. This has all been due to the amazing programming, staff, and ruach which creates an incredible haven for Jewish Ukrainian children.
This vibrant combination was perfectly showcased in the wedding of a former camper, who has attended Ramah Yachad since 1998. Last night, after returning to Ramah Yachad at age 28, Lev, wed beautiful bride, Miriam. It was incredible to experience a Jewish wedding in Ukraine and absolutely something I never would have dreamed of happening in my lifetime. It was heart-warming for me to attend a Jewish wedding half-way across the world, yet somehow I felt at home. Surrounded by my new family and friends celebrating this simcha, we enjoyed the ceremony which proceeded through traditions that were so familiar. As I sat watching the groom walk down the aisle, escorted by the camp director Gila, goosebumps ran up and down my spine thinking about the struggle that Lev went through in order to live as a proud Jew in Ukraine, compared to the relative ease in which Ramahniks live in the North America. The ceremony, which was attended by American Ramahniks in addition to all of the chanichim and madrichim of Ramah Yachad, was translated in English, Hebrew, and Ukrainian, creating a welcoming atmosphere for all. The ceremony was then followed by very spirited Israeli dancing. The whole camp then circled around the chuppah, as we sang and danced Havah Negillah in honor of the tenth couple married at Ramah Yachad.
Dancing has been such a key element of my time here at Ramah Yachad. Over the past week ריקוד has allowed me to establish connections with the campers and staff without the use of any verbal language, simply through the joy of Israeli dancing. This ריקוד really allowed the camp to come together as one mishpachah yehudit, as we welcomed the newlyweds with open arms and grapevine-ing feet.
During the evening program (following a two-course dinner!) each kvutzah presented a gift to the newlyweds. These gifts ranged from Israeli dances, a Jewish parody of a Ukrainian pop song, and an animation of the couple’s journey up to their wedding day. The gifts helped solidify the theme of mishpachah yehudit, because they showed the campers’ support and love for their Ramah Yachad mishpacha. I can’t wait to return to Ramah Yachad in twenty years and witness my campers get married, carrying on the tradition of mishpacha yehudit לדור ודור.
A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.