20 years ago, in the spring of 1994, I was sent by Beis Chaya Mushka Teacher Seminary on a mission to help the Chabad Shluchim, Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moscowitz, in Kharkov, Ukraine. Together with my sister Racheli Jacks and Sara Kulski from France, we departed filled with ambition and excitement to revive the flame of Judaism in a country that lived under Communism for so many years.
We stayed four months and taught in the Jewish school, gave classes to women, directed youth clubs and hosted Shabbatons. In the summer, we ran a day camp followed by a three week overnight camp for Jewish girls. Although we did not have all the luxuries we had back at home, we loved every moment. More importantly, we loved the extraordinary people we met. We were inspired by their strong passion and deep desire to discover their Jewish roots.
Throughout our time in Kharkov there was one 14 year old girl, Yana Sheps, who stood out in her longing to grow in Yiddishkeit and connect to Hashem. During summer camp, she studied a learning booklet during every free moment from cover to cover and earned the most points in the entire camp. We set up a “store” with attractive prizes that we brought from America. When it was time for her to pick her prize, she immediately reached for a box of Chanukah candles. I looked at her with great surprise. She exclaimed with joy, “Now, I will be able to light Shabbat candles!” This really touched me, and I will never forget this story.
Without a printer or copy machine at camp, the girls wrote prayers and Jewish songs in a small notebook we gave each girl. We spent many camp hours reciting prayers, singing songs and telling stories. Before camp was over we gave away many of our clothes to our sweet campers, whom we loved so much. We all cried when we had to say goodbye and I still miss my campers from Kharkov.
In those days without a computer or cell phone, it was very hard to stay connected and unfortunately, we lost touch completely. This week something moved me to search the name, Yana Sheps on Facebook and to my surprise, I found her page. I immediately messaged her and she responded with great excitement and we set up a Skype reunion. I can’t describe my feeling of happiness to see her smiling face on Skype. It was like a time machine went back 20 years; I felt 20 and Yana felt 14 again.
Yana or Yocheved as I would call her in camp told me that when we left Kharkov she cried for a long time. Her only comfort was to sing prayers and camp songs. She sang often, with tears in her eyes, longing to be reunited with her camp counselors.
Shortly after in 1996, Yana immigrated with her family to Hannover, Germany which didn’t have a Jewish school or a permanent Rabbi. She couldn’t take all her belongings but she made sure that she packed her notebook with songs and the sweater that we gave her. She wore the sweater and felt the warmth of her camp family. Throughout the years, she continued to sing camp songs in Hebrew, Russian and English and she felt the joy of Judaism. She promised herself that she would sing these songs to her children one day.
Yana attended University and didn’t know how she could possibly find a Jewish husband in Germany. She remembered writing a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in camp, so on her own, she wrote a letter asking the Rebbe for a blessing to marry a Jewish boy. One day she was approached by a University student who is also passionate about his Judaism and even wrote “B”H” on the paper with his phone number. He had learned for two years in a Yeshiva in Israel and is a direct descendant of Rabbi Zalman Shneor Altshuller, an emissary and Chossid of the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe. (The picture below is the cover of a book about him.) Wow! I thought to myself the Rebbe was truly looking out for her. B”H, She was married under the Chupah five years ago by the Chabad emissary, Rabbi Benjamin Wolff who arrived in Hannover, Germany in 2005.
I told her that my mission in life is to offer every Jewish girl a camp experience that will inspire them to marry a Jew and build a Jewish home, as she has done. It is truly a gift to see the impact CGI of Kharkov has on her 20 years later. I realize now that my meaningful experience in Kharkov moved me to found the Jewish Girls Retreat.
Yocheved told me that it is her wish to give her daughter, Sarah Shoshana, who is 17 months K”H, the same feeling of happiness and belonging that she felt years ago at camp. Tonight, when she put her little Sarahle to sleep, she sang to her the Hebrew songs that she learned at camp and we also sang them together on Skype once again. Today, she plans to send her daughter to a Jewish school and hopefully one day to the Jewish Girls Retreat.
This is the power of Jewish camp.
This is the power of Jewish songs.
This is the power of the Jewish soul.
Today we share our story with you so you will realize that when you ignite one soul, you are truly impacting generations! You are planting a seed that will grow into a large tree and bear many fruits!
Campers, counselors, and mothers, daughters: Please keep singing!
As the saying goes, “the hand that rocks the cradle (while singing Jewish songs) rocks the world”.