In late March, Rabbi Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, a Jewish camping and education organization in Los Angeles, received an unexpected ask from Lena Geller.
Geller, director of the institute’s Camp Gesher – a Russian-speaking Jewish overnight summer camp in California – had just come back from a trip to Poland to volunteer with Ukrainian refugees. “She called me…and said, ‘I think we have an obligation to provide an experience for these kids who are fleeing the war, who need just what Gesher offers,’” Kaplan told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Love, care, camp, hugs, just to be in an environment for a couple of weeks that’s so different from what they’ve experienced.”
Kaplan agreed, and together with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Shalom Institute raised over $80,000 to sponsor 29 Ukrainian Jewish refugee campers and four staff members to attend Camp Gesher at no cost to the families. The GPG is an annual funder of Camp Gesher. The camp’s two-week session starts on Tuesday, with 150 total campers attending.
Mobilizing “in support of the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war and leaving behind their belongings – and in many cases loved ones – was at times overwhelming,” Geller said in a federation statement. “We have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Ukrainian refugees here in the United States, especially children.”
The participating refugees now reside across the U.S., with some coming to camp from San Diego and New York. Having raised $32,895 for the initiative, the federation is sponsoring 15 campers living in L.A. and bringing a crew of Russian-speaking mental health professionals to support campers and staff.
Many of the campers’ fathers are still in Ukraine, conscripted to defend the country against Russia’s invasion. At least one camper has been displaced twice by Russian forces: first from eastern Ukraine when Russia invaded in 2014, and again earlier this year. All have stories of fleeing their homes, sometimes coming to the U.S. after weeks of journeying through Europe and Mexico.
The refugees’ stories remind Rabbi Noah Farkas, CEO of the L.A. federation, of his family’s immigration story. “My grandparents talked about how they got to the United States running away from the Cossacks, on their own at 14,” he said. “It feels just oddly familiar in a very dark way.”
Farkas referenced the long-term need to support Ukrainian refugees, and how that obligation reflects a Jewish community largely made up of recent immigrants. Half of the 300,000 Jewish households in L.A. include an immigrant or someone with a parent who immigrated to the U.S., according to a recent population study.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that if [Ukrainian] refugees end up in our neighborhoods, that we take care of them just like we were taken care of when we came over generations ago,” Farkas said. “This is a long-term commitment that [Jews] have to each other.”