A Chabad-inspired summer camp for children from underprivileged or abusive homes in Ukraine has relocated this year to Hungary and Israel. But one of its directors, Londoner Meir Levin, says that despite the war with Russia, more and more of the camp participants are returning to Ukraine and he hopes that Camp Yeka will resume there soon.
Camp Yeka, named for Yekatrinoslav, as Dnepropetrovsk, the site of the first such camp was formerly known, was begun in 2001 and since then has been running hugely popular three camps a year — summer, winter and Pesach — for boys aged from seven to 17. Chabad counsellors come from all over the world to run the camps, together with a parallel programme for girls.
Meir Levin, 23, the eldest son of Brondesbury Park Synagogue’s Rabbi Baruch Levin, said: “Just a few weeks before the outbreak of the war we ran a winter camp for the first time in the Carpathian mountains, and though everyone was talking about the prospect of war with Russia, no-one really believed it would happen.”
But when war did break out it meant thousands of children left Ukraine for new homes in Europe or Israel. Many of the Camp Yeka boys come from orphanages, or remote villages where there is little or no Judaism. Often the children are living in dire poverty or abusive homes, which makes the prospect of attending Camp Yeka so attractive.
This year, almost all the Ukraine orphanages were evacuated — and one of the biggest, in Odesa, sent its children to Berlin. Numbers of other children went to Israel. So the Yeka organisers, teaming up with the Federation of Jewish Communities in eastern Europe, took a campsite in Hungary on the shores of Lake Balaton, where the boys can enjoy all kinds of sports and social activities, together with Jewish learning, during the two week camp. There will be a separate camp in Israel for the Ukrainian ex-pats there.
None of this comes cheap, but as Meir Levin explained, the camps are largely funded by their counsellors. “Every counsellor has to bring at least $3,000 to the table”, he said, adding that running a camp in Hungary cost considerably more than in Ukraine — the current camp costs about £150,000. He said the Brondesbury Park community had been highly supportive.
The counsellors — Meir is in his fourth year at Camp Yeka — stay close to the Yeka boys even when there is no camp, calling them every Friday night to wish them a good Shabbat. Many of the former participants have become counsellors themselves. He said: “As much as we inspire them, they inspire us.” He hoped British Jews would embrace the project, perhaps by sponsoring participants in the next Yeka camp.
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