Boys From Soviet-Era Homes Run Summer Camp in Kharkov

A win-win for everyone, building Judaism and community in Ukraine

Communists forbade them to study Torah; now, their children are teaching Torah to a new generation.

The parents of Zalman Antomonov, Efraim Kolpak and Michoel Manochin once lived under an oppressive Soviet regime. They could never have imagined that one day, their sons would be running a Gan Israel summer camp in their own hometown of Kharkov, Ukraine.

The three were all students of the Ohr Avner Jewish Day School in Kharkov and went on to study at the Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah in Moscow. But before that, each summer when the days grew long and the weather warm, the boys would board a bus and head to Camp Gan Israel, located on the Rohr campgrounds in the countryside outside of Kharkov.

Now grown, the three have chosen to give back to a place that gave them so much. They spent this past academic year raising money for such things as prizes and treats for campers, and creating an entertaining and educational Jewish program that would make a lasting impression on the youngsters.

Gan Israel director Rabbi Yaakov Yakimenko, once a camper himself, says the generational development is a win-win: “When the campers see counselors who just a few years ago were just like them, fully embracing Yiddishkeit with energy and enthusiasm, the gain is for everyone—the entire community.”

Thanks to the help of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) – Ohr Avner, the Chabad-run camp was a possibility despite the economic collapse Ukraine has experienced in the last two years.

Kharkov, the second-largest city in Ukraine, has a population of about 1.5 million people. Located in the northeastern part of the country, the city was affected in the early days of war in Ukraine, but has since stabilized.

The girls’ camp was run by Shoshana and Devorah Leah Moskovitz, teenage twin daughters of Chabad emissaries Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moskovitz. Other local Kharkov teens served as counselors. As a result of the camp season, some girls signed up for Jewish day school, and many received Jewish names.

Chief Rabbi Moskovitz, head Chabad emissary of the region, started Kharkov’s first-ever Jewish summer camp 25 years ago—and Gan Israel is still going strong. In earlier years, counselors were flown in from the United States and Israel. Decades of Jewish educational work in Kharkov and the rest of the former Soviet Union has allowed the camp to today be run by locals.

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