This August, nine Jewish youth leaders, members of the Finchley Reform Synagogue (FRS) Youth 4 Youth programme filled their cases to the max to their 32kg allowance with resources and headed off to run a Jewish summer camp in Belarus. Not the easiest journey, as Debra Brunner explains.
They flew into Vilnius, took a shuttle mini bus to the Lithuania Belarus border and in the dead of night and in a monsoon rain storm, dragged their bags on foot across the border to Belarus. The group were met on the other side by Artur Livshyts, member of FRS who lives in Minsk, and who is co-Director of the UK Charity The Together Plan, who were responsible for organizing the logistics of the camp. Two hours later, the group were in Minsk, safely installed in warm apartments where everything had to be hung out to dry – including the tissue paper, sugar paper and Kabbalat Shabbat service books!
The following day, the group visited the former prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto and the British Ambassador Bruce Bucknell. We had a chance to chat, have tea and hear some of the incredible stories of survival. Ambassador Bucknell was delighted to be able to meet our group and the following day he proudly showed a photo of us all together on the British Embassy in Minsk Facebook page and said that he wanted to use us an example of the importance and value of becoming British youth ambassadors abroad.
Over the following four days, we were in Bobruisk, south of Minsk, where we ran 4 days of hadracha for young Jewish adults from 3 different communities in Belarus. We also ran a four day summer camp for children between the ages of five to fourteen. We covered the themes of Chanukah, Pesach and Shavuot. It is a very daunting challenge to run a summer camp in Belarus, a country that is referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe”. Bureaucracy is complex and the facilities are lacking. However there are many Jewish people there, isolated and forgotten. This is a vital link for the Belarus communities. It gives them hope, teaches them about Judaism, empowers them, gives them skills to run their own youth programs and it develops links and friendships which sustain them.
During the communist years it was illegal to practice religion, and so to practice and pass on traditions was done so at great risk. As a result, many Jewish people don’t know how to be practicing Jews and for many it is too daunting to know where to begin to try to find a way back to it. That is why this program is so vital and so important. Here in the UK we bar mitzvah our youth and we train them to be youth leaders. Youth 4 Youth gives these skilled young Jewish adults an opportunity to take their skills into the field, to give back and do some real tikkun olam, and they do it with real flare.
Kol ha’kavod to Youth 4 Youth, FRS and The Together Plan.
The top photo shows: back row: Ben Burman, Benjamin Clingman, British Ambassador Bruce Bucknell, Sophie Teff, Sam Brunner, Alex Fenton, Jacob Brunner.
Front row: Charlie Sassienie, Jonathan Clingman, Debra Brunner (FRS Y4Y Coordinator and Director of The Together Plan), Nick Trapp.
The bottom photo shows the group with the Belarus madrichim who we were training in Bobruisk.