Sderot, an Israeli city that borders Gaza, is so frequently bombed by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups that its geography has become defined by the shelters. Bus stops and playground structures double as places to hide. For some children, though, each summer provides a two-week respite from this way of life. At the end of July, up to 75 children are bused out of Sderot to a summer camp in Israel hosted by the Massachusetts-based Russian Jewish Community Foundation.
The Boston-Sderot Camp is mostly run by children of Soviet immigrants from Massachusetts and follows a schedule similar to their own sleepaway camp experience. “Every morning, there was a set wake-up time, and then we would go to zaryadka – in Russian, that means just morning exercise,” said Elizabeth Zhorov, a counselor from Marblehead, who helped lead the camp this year, and is a student at Northeastern University. “It’s a fun way to get kids to wake up.”
The rest of the day is filled with arts and crafts, dance, sports, and a number of other activities. In addition, there are also math and English classes taught by the counselors because very few of the children speak English.
Like the counselors, many of the campers are children of Soviet immigrants. In addition to speaking Hebrew, the children speak Russian at varying levels of fluency. “There’s definitely still a huge language barrier because our Russian is not great, their Russian is not great. Counselors don’t really know Hebrew, the kids don’t really know English,” said Project Coordinator Yudit Bolotovsky, who is from Boston. Counselors are taught basic phrases in Hebrew during their training, but most communication is done through Russian or with the help of campers who understand English.
If anything needed to be reinforced, Sveta Panaitov – the program director who lives in Sderot and runs yearlong community programs during the rest of the year – would repeat it in Hebrew to the group. “Then it would just be a very funny situation, because maybe we didn’t get it. So then our campers would have to explain what she said in Hebrew,” recalled Laurie Kamenetsky, a volunteer from Newton who works as a manager in global sales enablement at Matillion.
Fluency in Russian or Hebrew is not required to be a counselor, but experience is important. The majority of Boston-Sderot counselors have been counselors at Camp Sunapee in Georges Mills, N.H. “Since I was 10 years old, there was always someone out of our family and group going [to the Boston-Sderot Program],” Dita Berline, a counselor from Brookline, recalled. “They would all come back with these amazing stories and pictures. That’s how I always knew that I was gonna go. The second I turned 18, which is how old you need to be to be a counselor, I went.”
The Boston-Sderot Program originated with Camp Sunapee. In 2007, Masha Rifkin – a member of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation – wrote stories about Sderot while in Israel for a semester. “She found that the kids and the folks from this town looked and sounded a lot like our community because we all emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s,” Kamenetsky explained. “These kids very well could have had our life and we could have had theirs, where their life is interrupted by rocket fire.”
Rifkin began to fundraise and that summer, 19 children from Sderot flew to the U.S. to take part in the summer program in New Hampshire. The ability to befriend campers from a different country had an impact on many of the campers, including Bolotovsky, who was 12 at the time. “It was really interesting to see how they behaved because they were definitely brought up in a different environment than we were,” she said. “I remember there was a thunderstorm that summer. They all were super affected by it.”
The following year, American counselors went to Israel. “Our community realized that it’s not very feasible to just bring 10 kids each summer,” Bolotovsky explained, “Instead, it makes sense to bring 10 Americans to Israel. So, after that summer, our program switched.”
Over the past decade and a half, the program has grown steadily. “The first summer was, like, 40 kids, and [in] 2022, I believe we had 85,” said Bolotovsky. “We have been able to organize and send American counselors to Israel every summer with the exception of 2014, because there was a big war in Israel that summer, so we could not go. And then in 2020, obviously, we didn’t go because of COVID.”
The program is set to continue in the summer of 2023. For the people behind the program, the consistency is just as important a factor as the chance for these children to escape. “ ‘Why do you keep coming back?’ They always asked us that,” said Bolotovsky. “We’re like, ‘Yes, we’re coming back every year.’ We’re giving them this sense of hope, the sense of consistency, and a sense of, there’s these people in America that really care, and they keep coming.”
To learn more about Boston-Sderot project, go to: www.rjcf.com