Camp Ramah Yachad: Jewish life flourishing in the Ukraine
By Saralee Shrell-Fox
Camp Ramah Yachad in Ukraine makes history with counselors and campers reading Torah for the very first time. Israeli musician and “Ba’alat Tefila” Saralee Shrell-Fox brought her talent to this unique camp, which provides an opportunity for teenagers to encounter a nurturing, joyous Jewish community environment in a beautiful country setting.
This summer I had the privileged and honor to teach at Ramah Yahad in Ukraine for the last 5 days of camp, which was truly, an amazing experience.
Ramah Yachad opened its doors 26 years ago to foster positive Jewish identity and learning, complementing the work of the existing (few) Masorti Congregations and Jewish Schools in the Ukraine. The camp welcomes students from large and small communities throughout the Ukraine as well as some staff from Israel and creates a joyous, open-minded, accepting, authentic and rich 2-week Jewish experience that 150 campers and staff look forward to and return to year after year.
Ramah Yachad follows the Ramah educational model, incorporating spoken Hebrew, Israeli Songs for performances, dancing and wakeup; age-appropriate Prayer and blessings; Jewish Content in all activities, and a focus on the history and current events of Modern Israel.
Staff and Senior staff offer a role modeling, participating in all formal and informal activities and showing their life-long interest in learning. Often in their 30’s and married with small children, senior staff create a family feeling at camp where campers explore their identity, connect with other Jews and witness respectful, loving traditional Jewish family life, often for the first time.
Campers have grown up to become counselors, meet and marry at Ramah Yachad, decide to become religious, make aliyah, convert, lead kehilot in their home towns and pursue rabbinic studies.
Gila Katz has directed Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine since its founding 26 years ago. Every year she invites local and Israeli Guest Educators to work alongside herself and Schechter-ordained Rabbi Reuven Stamov to enrich Jewish content at camp.
My part in camp was to teach three madrichim (counselors) and one chanicha (camper) via Skype to read Torah. I joined them as they read publically for the first time and also taught new melodies at weekday and Shabbat prayer, taught about Slichot and spoke about life as a hazzanit in Israel.
The students, Yulia Fresh, Alise Shapoval, Lev Kleyman, and Miriam Stamov “made history in Ramah Yachad” as the first madrichim and chanicha ever to read Torah. It was exciting and emotional for campers to see their staff and peer reading from the Torah. The entire community was quiet with anticipation and respect. Following each aliya, everyone erupted with applause. Everyone was so proud, and this was their way to show it! I made a special MiShebeirach prayer, we threw candies and all cheered the new readers by singing Siman Tov UMazal Tov.
It is moving and exciting to see Jewish life flourishing in the Ukraine and meet campers and staff thirsting to learn more about Jewish tradition, Israel, and daily Jewish life. I found each camper and staff member eager to learn and to know anything Jewish.
The Ben Teitel Foundation of Detroit, JUF Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the Liebhaber Family Foundation, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Child’s Day Fund and other generous donors can be assured that their support is having a deep and lasting impact.
Saralee Shrell-Fox is teacher of nusach and t’amei hamikra at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem