What do 135 Jewish children from all over Ukraine, 25 counselors and staff from Ukraine and Israel, 13 junior counselors from seven North American Ramah summer camps, a Ramah mission led by Rabbi Mitch Cohen, National Director of Ramah, and the heads of the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem have in common? We all gathered together at Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine last week to celebrate the wedding of Lev and Yulia Kleiman.
The story begins 26 years ago, in August 1990, after the Iron Curtain fell. We, at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, wanted to do something to help the Jews of the FSU return to Judaism but we didn’t know what. We sent two rabbinical students on a pilot trip; they came back and told us that we must found Jewish schools ASAP. In summer 1991, our Midreshet Yerushalayim affiliate teamed up with an amazing educator named Gila Katz to found a Jewish day school in Chernowitz. By 1992, we had founded Camp Ramah Yachad; a few years later Gila began to direct the camp as well. After making aliyah in 1996, Gila Katz continued to direct the camp and eventually became the Director of Midreshet Yerushalayim. Over the years, Midreshet Yerushalayim grew to a network of family education centers, day schools and/or synagogues. Today we have branches in Kiev — led by Rabbi Reuven Stamov and co-sponsored by Masorti Olami — Chernowitz, Berdichev, and Odessa.
To return to 1992, Lev Kleiman began to attend the Midreshet Yerushalayim day school in Chernowitz in first grade. There he learned Hebrew and Jewish studies from Gila Katz. Later, he began to attend Camp Ramah Ukraine, eventually becoming a counselor, and, since 2013, he has been the director of Midreshet Yerushalayim’s Kehillah in Chernowitz.
Thus, when Lev asked me to perform his wedding to Yulia (Miriam) at Camp Ramah Ukraine this past week, how could I say no? To me, Lev’s biography symbolizes the incredible revival of Jewish life in Ukraine since 1990. The children and grandchildren of Jews who were not allowed to read Hebrew and attend synagogues are now running their own schools and kehillot in Ukraine!
Standing under the improvised huppah of a tallit and four poles facing the Carpathian Mountains, I talked to Lev and Miriam — in Hebrew, English and Russian — about the time, the place and the people at the wedding:
“The time symbolizes our love for Zion and Jerusalem. You are getting married at the time of year when we remember the Destruction. In a few moments, Lev will recite “Im eshkakheh Yerushalayim,” “If I forget thee O Jerusalem”, before breaking the glass. Finally, the weekly portion of Mattot-Masei is also filled with Zionism: the sons of Gad and Reuven volunteer to go before the camp as Halutzim (pioneers) for the Children of Israel (Numbers 32); the parshah delineates the borders of the Land of Israel (Numbers 34); and the daughters of Zelophehad also demand a portion in the Land (Numbers 36).
The place symbolizes that you want to build a Jewish home 24/7, 365 days a year. That is why you asked to be married specifically here at Camp Ramah Yachad, because it symbolizes for you full Jewish life, which you have learned here over the course of many years. May it be God’s will that you continue to build a wonderful Jewish home in Chernowitz.
Finally, the people here symbolize the unity of the Jewish people, the fact that all Jews are responsible for one another. That is why this wedding is being attended by campers from all over Ukraine, by staff from Ukraine and Israel, by a Mission from Ramah USA, by young counselors from seven Ramah summer camps; and by the leaders of the Schechter Institutes, which has been funding Midreshet Yerushalayim and Camp Ramah Ukraine for the past 26 years.
May the time, the place and the people continue to inspire you for the rest of your lives.”
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. based in Jerusalem, which funds the Schechter Institute, The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, The TALI Education Fund, and Midreshet Yerushalayim.