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Amid war in Ukraine, camps provide a touch of normalcy

Jewish Relief Network Ukraine camps offer social opportunities, engaging activities and a chance for kids to be kids.

Marina Stalinskaya, 8, at summer camp. Credit: JRNU.
Marina Stalinskaya, 8, at summer camp. Credit: JRNU.

On a recent morning, 8-year-old Marina Stalinskaya raced out of her family’s home eager to get to camp. On the face of it, there was nothing particularly special about that. But for Marina, who lives in Ukraine, the opportunity to go to summer camp this year is vital as bombs and rockets continue to rain down on the country as the war with Russia continues.

Originally from Kharkov, Marina’s family relocated last year to the country’s capital, Kyiv. The move has been difficult on the youngster.

“Our daughter has had difficulties with the relocation, the separation from her friends and her usual way of life,” said her mother, Galina. “Therefore, we decided to keep her enrolled in her school in Kharkov, and she has continued to study in an online format. This, of course, has severely narrowed her in-person contact with friends.

“That’s why we were so incredibly pleased when she was offered the chance to attend the Jewish summer camp in Kyiv,” she continued. “Since camp began, it’s like our child came back to life; she’s like her old self again.”

Some 2,000 Jewish youngsters across Ukraine will be attending a summer program this year thanks to Chabad’s Jewish Relief Network Ukraine, or JRNU.

“People are not in their homes, they are not in their communities, and they are searching for connections, especially within the Jewish community,” said Judi Garrett, chief operating officer of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine. “The kids are looking for their own connections with other kids.”

Also, Garrett said, children in Ukraine are “suffering from the trauma of war. Camp will offer them recreational and social activities, a little academics, a little Judaics and, this year, some psychological support to help them with all the challenges they’ve been facing.”

In Kharkov, where Marina once lived, students have not attended in-person classes since Feb. 24, 2022, because the city is a “front-line” target for Russian attacks. When sirens blare, warning of an incoming missile or rocket, residents have just 30 seconds to seek shelter.

“There’s been no in-person school since last winter, so getting together in camp, in a fun environment, where kids can communicate in person and forget about war going around them is more important than ever before,” said Miriam Moskovitz, who along with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, lead the Jewish community in Kharkov and are Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to the city.

A camp participant makes challah prior to the start of Shabbat. Credit: JRNU.

The couple has run Jewish summer programs in Kharkov for more than 30 years, and they even have their own campgrounds for overnight programs. However, because of the war, they cannot utilize the grounds and will be holding all activities in the Choral Synagogue located in the city center.

“We always put a very big emphasis on summer camps,” said Moskovitz, explaining that “as important as Jewish education is for Jewish children, summer camps allow children to live Judaism for two or three weeks.”

Despite knowing the benefits camp can provide, most families in Ukraine can’t afford the cost. According to JRNU, it costs about $400 to send a child to day camp for two weeks and $1,200 to send a child to an overnight camp for three weeks. The organization, which provides aid to Ukraine’s Jewish communities large and small, is determined to ensure that kids get to go to camp this summer.

To help offset the cost, Ethan Gross, a JRNU supporter from West Bloomfield, Mich., is offering JRNU a challenge grant of up to $10,000. He hopes that by doing so, others will also step up to provide financial assistance as well.

“I saw the impact the camp experience had on my own children when they were growing up. They got to meet new people and make new friends that have become lifelong friends and have adventures,” he said. “The kids in Ukraine who living through a time of war—and with that on their minds—deserve to go off to camp and have some joy.”

While camp will provide children with a respite—at least for a little while—from the war, there are other benefits as well, according to Marina’s mother.

“As Jewish parents, it is very important to give our daughter a chance to be with her friends, to learn about Yiddishkeit and Judaism, and to development leadership and team skills,” said Galina Stalinskya. “We are very grateful to the community, the camp team and sponsors for such an opportunity for our child.”

This article was written by freelance writer Faygie Holt.

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JRNU is the largest boots on the ground Jewish humanitarian aid organization in Ukraine. Throughout the war, JRNU, the organization formed by the Federation of Jewish Communities-Former Soviet Union (FJC) to carry out humanitarian work in Ukraine, has supported 50,000 people with food, housing, medical treatment, medication, children's programs and much more. The leaders, staff and volunteers have been working in Ukraine long before the crisis began and there will be working long after it ends. All donations and support are used directly to support those in need.
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