From Odessa with Love

It was early on a Monday morning, but youngsters at Camp Milldale were full of pep. About 80 5- to 10-year-olds and their counselors were gathered in the Big Max all-purpose room, and spirits ran high. Janna Zuckerman, program manager of the Center for Jewish Camping at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore was trying to get their attention in order to introduce two visitors who had come a long way to bring a piece of Ukraine to Reisterstown.

Irina Gokhman and Dima Garkavluk arrived in Baltimore last week from Odessa, Ukraine. Their trip to the U.S. was funded through the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, a program of The Associated. Gokhman and Garkavluk, both in their mid-20s, work for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sponsors programs for Russian-speakers in the Former Soviet Union, North America, Germany, Australia and Israel.

The programs promote Jewish culture and unity through a continuum of immersive Jewish experiences, said Andrew Razumovsky, co-chair of The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership committee. Razumovsky explained that particularly in the Former Soviet Union, summer camps are a major focus of the program, introducing 3,000 Jewish youth to Judaism and Israel though week-long summer camps.

According to JAFI, the Former Soviet Union was once home to 800,000 Jews. Now that number has dwindled to approximately 160,000, although JAFI estimates that three million Russian-speaking Jews reside elsewhere in the world. According to the organization’s website, these Russian-speaking Jews barely participate in “mainstream” Jewish life. The programs JAFI offers are designed to increase their Jewish involvement.

After they were introduced to Milldale’s youngest campers, Garkavluk told the youngsters a popular Odessan fairy tale. Afterward, Gokhman asked for questions and reactions from the children. Then she explained they would be making group collages to illustrate the story. There was organized chaos as materials were distributed and counselors tried to direct their charges’ attention to the task at hand. A few minutes later, campers were busily cutting and pasting old issues of the JT. Then it was time for the children to present their work.

Soon after the presentations, the campers filed out of the all-purpose room, and another group of campers filed in. Gokhman and Garkavluk would spend the rest of the day and the next at Camp Milldale and the following Wednesday with campers at the Owings Mills JCC’s Maccabi Sports Camp and Top Notch Teen program.

So far, both young adults said they are enjoying their visit to Baltimore and their first time in the U.S. In addition to visiting the JCC Camps, Gokhman and Garkavluk spent Shabbat with other young adults at Moishe House, toured the Jewish Museum of Maryland, met with Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders and visited Washington, D.C. They admitted that they were nervous prior to leading the storytelling activity at Camp Milldale.

“In Ukraine, we are used to working with much smaller groups,” said Gokhman. Yet, after meeting the campers, Gokhman and Garkavluk agreed they were no different from the children in Odessa.

Before his trip to the U.S., Garkavluk said he only knew about the U.S. through “film and cereals.”

“I like Baltimore,” he said. “It’s quite interesting and has more to [offer] than a lot of other cities.”

Garkavluk said he learned about Judaism when his grandmother began bringing him to visit the Jewish programs in Odessa when he was 5 years old.

“When I was 15, I realized I wanted to be a camp counselor to bring practical knowledge to Jewish kids,” he said. “Many of the children in Odessa don’t study at Jewish schools. They have many questions [about Judaism]. I try to teach them basic Jewish [facts] that are relevant to their lives.”

Gokhman said her family had always celebrated Jewish holidays, but she did not attend religious schools when she was a child. After she went on a JAFI-sponsored Birthright Israel trip, she knew she wanted more of a connection to Judaism and Israel.

“I decided I wanted to create something, to have an impact by bringing Jewish education to Odessa,” she said.

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