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To Be A Jew Is…

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Annabelle Baer, Camp Ramah Darom

One week ago, as our trip was just beginning, we had an unpleasant encounter while davening in Budapest. We walked to a small courtyard in the Jewish quarter, occupied by Hasidic Jews, to pray. After a few slightly reassuring nods from men sitting in the courtyard, we began to pray together, for the first time as a group. Ten minutes into our Shacharit service, a man wearing a Kippah appeared from the other side of the courtyard. Without warning, he began yelling at the group in Hebrew saying “Get out right now! I am calling the police! Go to your reform synogogue down the street! Get out!” We were all shocked by this unexpected act of hatred, and silently walked out of the Jewish quarter so that we would not cause any more controversy. As we finished Shacharit outside the courtyard, I noticed our madrichim watching the street to make sure we were safe from any further confrontations. This was the first time I realized that not only are there major problems between Jews and other communities, but also between Jews and fellow Jews.

I left Budapest and entered Ukraine with a slightly bitter idea of what the Jewish people outside of America are like. However, the warm welcome I got from the madrichim and chanichim at Ramah Yachad completely wiped any bad taste from my mouth. During the morning activity with my eleven- and twelve-year-old chanichim, we participated in a program in which we had to choose three different papers that said “To be a Jew is…”. Many chanichim chose the paper that said to be a Jew is to love Israel, to be a Jew is to keep Kosher, or to be a Jew is to follow the Torah. However, I chose one that I was shocked that not a single chanich chose. I took a paper that said “To be a Jew is to love other Jews.” My experience a week before drove me to choose that answer but it suprised me to think that despite the difficult history of the Jewish people in Ukraine, none of the Ukranian chanichim prioritized loving other Jews. I explained my thought process to the group (which was then translated into Russian) and while all of the chanichim agreed, it still shocked me that not a single chanich chose that paper.

Looking back on my experiences while teaching the chanichim Shabbat songs, I now realize why I was the only person who said that to be a Jew is to love other Jews. For many of the kids at Ramah Yachad, camp is their main or sole Jewish experience throughout the year. Since the atmosphere at camp is so incredible, the children do not realize that there are certain Jews who are not as accepting as those at Ramah Yachad. When they come to camp, everyone welcomes them with open arms, whether they practice Judaism at home or have never opened a Siddur before. While our group unfortunately encountered an uncomfortable experience with another Jew in Budapest, my time at Ramah Yachad has proven to me the importance of loving and supporting other Jews.

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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.

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