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Jewish Journal

A taste of summer camp for young Jewish Russians

by Ryan Torok

May 14, 2014 | 1:45 pm

Gesher marketing and recruitment coordinator Anna Avital Khazanov  (second from right) joins Camp Gesher counselors (from left) Milana Medvedeva, Tatyana Zvereva, Michael Vaysman, Jonathan Goldenberg and Biana Dorfman, trying out the ropes course at a recent counselors training session. Photo courtesy of Camp Gesher

Gesher marketing and recruitment coordinator Anna Avital Khazanov (second from right) joins Camp Gesher counselors (from left) Milana Medvedeva, Tatyana Zvereva, Michael Vaysman, Jonathan Goldenberg and Biana Dorfman, trying out the ropes course at a recent counselors training session. Photo courtesy of Camp Gesher

Several agencies are coming together in the hope that Russian-speaking children will begin their journey of Jewish self-discovery at Camp Gesher, a new overnight camp that caters to what it perceives to be a unique community.

Gesher — an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) and Genesis Philanthropy Group, a grant-making organization that aims to develop Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide — advertises itself as the “only overnight camp on the West Coast designed specially for kids ages 9 to 14 who come from Russian-speaking Jewish families.”

Time is running out to apply, though. As of press time, more than half of the 60 available openings in the camp had been filled, with additional applications being processed, according to Jenny Gitkis-Vainstein, a regional representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The camp’s inaugural — and only — session this summer will take place July 30 through Aug. 10 at JBBBSLA’s Camp Max Straus in Verdugo Hills. 

The cost of attending Camp Gesher (jbbbsla.org/campmax/campgesher) is $690. 

Gitkis-Vainstein, who develops programming for Russian Jews, told the Journal that the camp faces a number of challenges in balancing Judaism and this audience.

Rooted in the former Soviet Union, where religion was distrusted and persecuted, Russian Jews tend to be averse to programs that emphasize religious observance. So, despite offering Jewish content, the camp’s practices will be decidedly non-religious, Gitkis-Vainstein explained.

“Russian-Jewish families usually doesn’t send kids to Jewish camp … usually they are afraid of religious propaganda and brain-washing. For them, in America, Judaism is less about religion and more of a cultural experience and an understanding or a philosophy, so they don’t feel safe sending their kids to a regular Jewish camp, and they also don’t see value in it,” she said. “When they [the parents] were young, they didn’t have a Jewish camp, so for them the whole value is not exactly clear.”

Camp Gesher (“bridge” in Hebrew) aims to change that mentality.

Camp Max Straus assistant director Eric Nicastro said in an interview that part of the camp’s mission is bringing Russian kids closer to the Jewish community. The session will run simultaneously with the general overnight camp, Kibbutz Max Straus, and some activities will bring campers from both camps together. This mission inspired the name of the camp, Nicastro said.

“The goal is that [the Russian campers] will matriculate to [non-specific] Jewish summer camps,” Nicastro said. “Every report talks about Jewish engagement in the community and how Jewish summer camp is still a heavy-hitter that keeps them engaged. This is that bridge for the community.” 

Gitkis-Vainstein said that Camp Gesher is essentially a program of Kibbutz Max Straus. She described it as “a camp within a camp.”

Meanwhile, helping to keep the cost of camp affordable, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has provided approximately $30,000 in subsidies for Camp Gesher camperships as part of a larger grant that it provides to Kibbutz Max Straus.

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of Federation, expressed excitement about a summer camp that builds Jewish identity in the Russian community.

“We’re thrilled that this new opportunity is coming for Russian Jews in L.A....This is our sweet spot because it’s two things [engaging Russian Jews and summer camp] that we care deeply about,” Cushnir said.

Gitkis-Vainstein said reaction so far has been very positive and parents from all over California are signing their kids up for the new camp.

“What is good about this, a West Coast camp, is that there will be kids from L.A., Silicon Valley, San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County,” she said. “We hope to have kids from all over the West Coast.”

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