The Yeka camp is a place where campers from all around come to spend time in a warm home with their Jewish camp family. It is a life changing experience for all who attend.
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By: A Yeka Staff Member
The most striking thing that can be observed at Yeka, is that it’s a place where every child is loved for who they are, a neshama. Innocent children can fully express themselves in a safe, Jewish atmosphere and connections are made on a neshama level.
“Seeing the kids again from one camp to the next is an incredible experience and the highlight of my year,” shared Zahava, a returning counselor. “It’s like being reunited with a little sibling after months of separation. It’s amazing to see how much they’ve grown and changed through the experiences they’ve had, and how happy they are to be back in camp reunited with counselors and friends. I feel so fortunate to be part of this awe-inspiring shlichus that enables me to give what I can to these precious children”.
Neshama level connections is what Camp Yeka Girls is all about. With the majority of the children coming from broken homes, low-income families, Childrens Homes around Ukraine, and orphanages, it is all about igniting that spark and strengthening it with enough fire to last from camp to camp.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. The camp whatsapp group is alive on a day to day basis including weekly parsha dvar torah video by staff, personal calls between campers and counselors, nightly ‘Rebbe times’ of a niggun, story and saying kriyas shema together and one dedicated staff member sends the times of Shabbos every week for every city in Ukraine and the cities in Israel where the girls are situated, ensuing a rumble of “Shabbat shaloms”, “we have candles”, “ we have challa”. It doesn’t end when the bus pulls out, it merely begins another new ripple effect.
Since the breakout of the war, Yeka Girls had to pivot from their regular summer and winter sessions to include countries outside of Ukraine where children were hunkering down for safety. Now that most of the refugees around Europe relocated to Israel or returned to Ukraine, this summer had one session in the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine and a second session in Netanya, Israel. After two hugely successful camp sessions the staff returned to their homes around the world and set straight to work keeping the kids going.
With Rosh Hashana approaching the annual packages were sent out to both cities all over Ukraine and all over Israel. It included new jewelry for yom tov, a personalized gift, a warm letter to the kids from their loving staff, and of course a booklet filled with information about keeping yom tov with games to make the ideas fun. Topped off with some Kosher candy and packaged beautifully, it brings a deep warmth to the girls of their Yeka family. Across the ocean, yet constantly at their sides.
“It is hard to process the beauty of this summer. Walking into Ukraine camp was like coming home. The grounds were gorgeous, reuniting with the kids was like getting back together with my family. Shabbos in Ukraine felt shabbos. Not a campy shabbos, a Shabbos at home”, says Fraidy, returning counselor and head staff member.
“Israel was so short, just a week together with the kids. The dance floor was insane, they were obsessed with PanTorah and the Chidon. You could feel the change in each one in that short week. I sat there at the banquet, surrounded by kids singing, hearts and souls together, thinking, can we just never end this moment.”
The chidon was a competitive Torah learning competition and PanTorah was the Tzivos Hashem hour in the afternoons where the girls learned basic Jewish concepts and went up in levels receiving charms for their bracelets like the original Pandoras.
“On friday night I had two little campers discussing whether or not they are allowed to turn off the light in the bathroom before they went to sleep and it went back and forth until they thought of asking a non-jew but then came to the conclusion that there are only jews in camp and they have to leave the light on”, shared Zehava, another returning counselor. “There was another camper who was scared to go to sleep and she would ask me about Hashem, if He is always protecting her and if He’s everywhere”, she adds.
To keep up with the traumatic situation of the war and for the majority of the campers, the move to a different city or country, various times in the last few months, Yeka Girls brought in mental health professionals to meet with the girls privately and run workshops to help work through emotions and experiences. They were also important aids to the staff and supported all who needed help with their campers.
“The kids were so excited to get their Jewish names, even one mother who was displaced near the Carpathian mountains joined us and finally received her Jewish name.” says Fraidy, ruchnius director.
A camp highlight is the day the girls who didn’t yet have a Jewish name go to a nearby shul to be finally receive their names by the Sefer Torah. Everyone is dressed up with Shabbos clothing, make-up, crowns and dancing and singing ensues as each one receives the name of her choice. Gifted with a Russian transliterated siddur the girls go back with a never ending gift, their completed Jewish identity with a beautiful yiddishe name.
“One of my campers in Israel had never used a siddur before and had no idea what it meant to daven to Hashem. In the short days of camp she made such a connection with davening that she won the camp davening award” – Hendel, first time counselor.
“We were playing ‘If i had a million dollars where would I invest it’. One of the options was having a connection with Hashem. One of the girls put all her money inside and she said, “I would pay any amount for my connection with Hashem”, – Feigui, 3rd time Teen camp counselor
More than a summer experience and a camp environment, Yeka Girls strives to instill a strong connection to yiddishkiet, an open and real bond with Hashem and a goal to grow in Jewish living. To change the cycle of their historically Soviet Union families by having healthy, loving relationships and a higher level of education. The ripple effects of relatives and community members, friends in the shelters and fellow refugees on the road has been unparalleled to anything before.
On the cusp of her wedding day, Vlada wrote to her counselor from 8 years prior, “Yeka is part of what brought me to where I am now”.
More than a camp, Yeka girls is a family, a future.