Nothing short of idyllic. The thick green grass that rolled casually over endless landscapes, the occasional cloud in the sky, the eager-eyed counsellors that awaited our arrival and the fanfare of small but noticeable Israeli flags in the form of birthday bunting that lined the perimeter of the Jewish Agency summer camp. That was the sight that met our eyes, entering Western Ukraine 18 months after the outbreak of war that began on February the 24th 2022. As Director General of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, I had joined the Jewish Agency mission with committed Canadian leaders to learn firsthand about the people who had at times drifted out of our immediate frame of reference and to learn about what our partners were doing on the ground.
Mothers had sent their children aged between 6-12 for as long as an 18-hour train ride so that they could participate in the 10-day overnight camp. The camp, originally designed decades before the war to serve as a Jewish-Zionist educational space had, for the first time since the war’s outbreak, reopened to be a home for respite and cover, within a caring Jewish and Israeli communal environment. The children were dressed in light blue camp T-shirts that they must have worn for special occasions. This was one such time: a group of overseas visitors coming to see them and hear from them despite our language barriers and the barriers of the inconceivability of their plight. One child, who was noticeably smaller than the others, had clearly refused to wear the t-shirt and was out of the program, carefree, running around in his full Messi uniform kicking a football all over the place. Between covid and the war he had never been in school. He made me think of freedom.
It was only through their counselors that we could begin to fathom what these children had undergone. One counselor, Lara, talked to us at length about her counselor training background. Mid-way, in what could only be understood as a glimpse into her pain, she disclosed that her mother, with a broken leg had driven her brother out of their city to escape the bombing. It was later that we learned that her father had been killed in the war. One Israeli counselor, Noa (Elizabeth), told us that she was originally from Ukraine and had made aliya after her Masa program, undergone conversion and had taken this opportunity to return to her homeland to support the community and the children that she felt so badly for leaving behind. She wore a delicate star of David necklace around her neck. The quietest Israeli counselor in the group, Lena spoke last, and tearing up, shared that she cannot say anything. And when asked where she was from, she tells us she is from Russia. Each story, emerging in pieces, revealing the brokenness and the connection between these young women and their fortitude for one another and the children at the camp.
And, as I collect these memories and face the festival of Sukkot, I cannot but think of the significance of having shelter. Under the Carpathian Mountains, close to 80 years after the Jews in the area, the Jews of Munkatch and Uzghorod, who numbered almost 50% of the populations of these cities, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent, despite the illogic to the war efforts, to their deaths, it is here that Jews find reprieve, joy, and one another.
The festival of Sukkot is about the shelter God gave the Jewish people in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. By living in a sukkah, a temporary hut, for seven days with a roof that is not too high we cannot feel it, we are meant to experience God’s tender care for God’s people, mitigating the hardships of the journey across the desert by surrounding them with a protective cloud.
In the sukkah we know we are fragile, and we also experience protection. It is to me a historical wonder that we, as a people, with our own land are able to offer this kind of coverage to one another, wherever we are and whatever our background. It is also a historical responsibility. It is in this context that I understand the Jewish Agency’s core budget. At its best, like we saw in Ukraine, it provides Israel and the Jewish people with a source of shelter.
The contemporary Torah scholar, Aviva Zornberg, teaches us to understand the place of the wanderings of the Jewish people after the exodus from Egypt, not as a desert meaning empty, meaningless and void, but as wilderness, where discoveries are made, and past traumas are worked through and processed. May we, together, always be able to turn deserted places into spaces of discovery and connection and may we find the courage and vision to support those who give shelter, like a lonely cloud over the Carpathian Mountains.