By Malky Kosofsky
Take a 19-year-old girl straight from Longmeadow and ship her off to Vilnius, and how will she manage? I asked myself that question as I embarked with my friends on an eight-hour plane ride to the capital of Lithuania. We were heading off to run a camp for 25 Russian-speaking children. Meaning that every time we wanted to start an activity, the rules would need to be explained thrice; firstly in simplified English, then in Hebrew for some, and lastly for those who hadn’t understood the two previous versions, we would ask their friends to explain in Russian. We hoped that we wouldn’t lose anyone’s attention during this time. We were lucky that most campers spoke a passable English. Language aside, there is a vast difference in the Eastern European culture from that of Western society. I felt as if I had gone back a decade in time. (I must note that there was a noticeable presence of satellite dishes adorning the wooden houses.) The poverty was overwhelming. Our campers were less fortunate when it came to money; they were given a great discount on the camp fees to make it possible for them to attend camp. They showed up the first day with small suitcases or shopping bags to hold their belongings.
The purpose of the camp was for the students of the Jewish boarding school in Vilnius and other youth from the surrounding places going from as far as Riga, Latvia, to have a chance to get away in a safe, Jewish environment. We had children coming from single parent homes, and from intact families but in most cases, their parents were unable or incapable of caring for their children. The children are strong despite all of this. My co-counselors and I did our best to create a safe, exciting Jewish environment. Included in our plans were mezuzah decorating, and hosting a “mock” Jewish wedding, among other fun activities. We noticed that many of the campers were guarded. When we would see a sad camper, we would seek them out and ask what had happened. Most of the time we would be told, “Nothing.” It took time and patience to work things out. I would sometimes wonder to myself, “Am I making a difference? Am I able to bring some joy into their lives or I am I making matters worse?”
I knew that my friends and I accomplished a lot and made special connections in those brief ten days. I will remember the sight of Talia crying as she said goodbye to us in the airport. One day, I saw a child making the right choice and that was a sign for me. I was beaming when Yaakov, age ten, paused right before he put his fork into his mouth to ask me which bracha he was supposed to say before eating his sandwich. My fellow counselors and I modeled this behavior and we would say a bracha with the campers every time we ate. We would daven and teach them Jewish concepts in a fun and non-judgmental way. We focused on providing a safe and nurturing experience for the boys and girls in our care. Devorah, a counselor from Israel, brought skirts and Shabbos clothes for the girls and boys to proudly wear special clothes in honor of Shabbos. I would stay up late singing Jewish songs to my campers as they drifted off to sleep. For Daniel, this was his first taste of Judaism. When he came to camp, he told us that he was Catholic and only his mother is Jewish. Mushka, a counselor from New York, patiently explained (in limited Russian of course) that if his mother is Jewish then he is also a Jew. Daniel seemed to understand and began to pepper Mushka with questions about Judaism. Every mitzvah done with a huge smile made my time there real and meaningful. I keep a slip of paper with me, written by 8-year-old Chana in a crooked scrawl, “I love you Malki veri much.”