Jewish children in Rostov and the surrounding cities were counting down the days, eagerly awaiting this moment. Finally, the day arrived when Camp Gan Israel of Rostov once again opened its doors. More than 150 children, many from poverty- stricken and broken homes, were able to have a much-needed getaway together with other Jewish friends and adoring counselors, living Judaism 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Throughout the year many of these children are burdened with the desperate situations that they live in at home; at least twenty of them come from war-torn Lugansk and Donetsk, where they are forced to live in fear under fire. Other children deal with alcoholic parents, violence, or neglect. But when these children arrive at camp, they are greeted by the most enthusiastic and unconditionally-loving counselors and staff, and they can finally leave their worries behind and enjoy the exciting experience of camp, with fun surprises at every turn.
Following last year’s successful camp, Gan Israel Rostov added a boys division this year. During each session, the children enjoyed an action-packed day of sports, swimming in the beautiful on-site river, Jewish crafts, learning classes, and fun activities. They were taken on fantastic trips including a waterpark, zip lining, paintball shooting, and the famous Rostov zoo (second only to the Bronx zoo). One of the highlights of camp this year was camping in tents on the beach, with late night bonfires and stories from the Rabbi, and roasted marshmallows brought all the way from New York.
Tzivot Hashem was a great success this year, as the children spent every spare moment learning and memorizing information about Jewish traditions and history, and receiving tokens that were redeemed at the canteen which was packed with all kinds of new kosher candies and nosh.
“This year a tremendous emphasis was put on the importance of studying in a Jewish school,” said Rabbi Chaim Danzinger, Shliach to Rostov. “Our dedicated counselors worked day and night, explaining the importance of receiving a Jewish education and continuing their spiritual journey throughout the year.”
Rustic, a 13 year old boy from Bataisk said, “My counselor suggested I go study in the Yeshiva in Moscow. He told me an interesting statement; ‘a Jewish child who doesn’t study in a Jewish school, is missing his golden opportunity.’ So I decided to go study in Moscow, and perhaps continue my studies in Israel afterwards.”
For these children, camp really is a defining point in their lives. Aside from the material benefits – the children get to escape the hot and polluted city for fresh country air – every camper reaches a new level of observance, or deeper connection to Yiddishkeit. This was most evident in the speeches that were made at banquet, describing the changes they felt and resolutions they made for their future. One eloquent 11 year old girl from Ukraine, who spent most of her life hearing from her non-Jewish paternal grandmother that she is not really a Jew, stood up and said with great determination that she never wants her children to suffer the confusion that she has felt all her life, so she has now committed to only marrying a Jew when she grows up.
In the boys division, boys who have never been called to the Torah before celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs in camp with lots of excitement and pride. Both boys and girls have decided to attend the local Jewish day school in Rostov, and several other campers are on their way to Moscow for intensive Jewish studies.
When asked what he attributes the camps success to, Rabbi Danzinger said “definitely to the outstanding staff, who worked around the clock making sure campers not only enjoyed camp, but also received an unforgettable Jewish experience.”