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Chabad counselors suspend lives to save Ukrainian campers, some behind Russian lines

Young men and women from Camp Yeka quit jobs, fly to Europe to locate hundreds of children, sending money, love, and a path to safety

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • A Chabad Camp Yeka counselor celebrates Purim with her campers after they escaped from Ukraine to Berlin, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)
    A Chabad Camp Yeka counselor celebrates Purim with her campers after they escaped from Ukraine to Berlin, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)
  • Avraham Branover, Sholom Freidfertig, and Moishe Lifshitz prepare suitcases of supplies and games for their Chabad Camp Yeka campers, who escaped from Ukraine to Vienna, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)
    Avraham Branover, Sholom Freidfertig, and Moishe Lifshitz prepare suitcases of supplies and games for their Chabad Camp Yeka campers, who escaped from Ukraine to Vienna, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)
  • A girl enjoys the winter Camp Yeka in Ukraine weeks before the Russian invasion (courtesy Camp Yeka)
    A girl enjoys the winter Camp Yeka in Ukraine weeks before the Russian invasion (courtesy Camp Yeka)
  • A Chabad Camp Yeka counselor plays guitar with his campers, Jewish orphans from Odessa, after they escaped from Ukraine to Berlin, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)
    A Chabad Camp Yeka counselor plays guitar with his campers, Jewish orphans from Odessa, after they escaped from Ukraine to Berlin, March 2022 (courtesy Camp Yeka)

Last week, Menucha Hanoka was awoken by her newborn baby in her Pasadena home at 3 am.

As she picked up her child, the 26-year-old Chabad youth director instinctively glanced at her phone.

There were 6 missed calls from the same number. They weren’t from a close girlfriend looking for a late-night chat. Nor was her mother trying to contact her in the middle of the night.

It was an 8-year-old girl stuck in a Kharkiv metro station, desperately trying to reach Hanoka, safe in California 10,000 kilometers away from the Russian assault on Ukraine.

“I called her back,” she told The Times of Israel by phone on Friday. “Her mother had fallen and hurt her foot, and they were stuck in the metro station. They had no money for a taxi to get to the train to get out of Kharkiv. There was bombing all over, she said they had been there for two days, no food, nothing, and her mother couldn’t walk.”

Hanoka knew the girl from Camp Yeka, a program Hanoka runs in Ukraine with other young Chabad men and women. Since 2001, the Yeka program — named after Yekaterinoslav, the city now known as Dnipro, where the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe grew up –has provided summer, winter, and Passover camps for Jewish Ukrainians.

Hanoka was able to send money to the girl through Rabbi Moshe Theler in Berdychiv, the father of one of the Yeka counselors, so they could take a taxi to the train station. The girl and her injured mother traveled to Dnipro, where she received medical care in a hospital.

Menucha Hanoka celebrating Purim with Ukrainian children from Camp Yeka (courtesy)

The Yeka counselors were able to arrange payment for the treatment as well.

The volunteers eventually got the mother and daughter on an evacuation bus, which brought them to Moldvoda on Thursday.

“From there we connected them with Chabad,” Hanoka explained, “and they were able to go to the consulate and hopefully to Israel.”

Language is not a barrier

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, Chabad emissaries and other Jewish organizations embarked on ambitious projects across Ukraine, establishing synagogues, community centers, schools, and charities.

Meir Levin, director for Camp Yeka for boys, at a cafe in Jerusalem, March 15, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

One of these projects was Camp Yeka, run by young, enthusiastic Chabad men and women.

“It’s really a bochurim-led initiative,” Meir Levin, director of the Yeka boys camp, told The Times of Israel last week in Jerusalem. “We run it, we fund it. The oldest guys in our organization are 23, 24.”

The program Levin heads relies on around 15 young, unmarried Yeshiva students known as bochurim. The boys camps host between 70-90 kids, from ages 7-17. Many Jewish orphanages send their boys and girls to the Yeka camps, as do all the Chabad families and schools in Ukraine.

“This is real frontline shlichus,” reflected Levin, referring to the Chabad-Lubavitch term for heading out to often distant locales to foster Jewish life and care for the needs of the local community.

“We learn that language is not a barrier and we just see it time and time again,” said Levin, 23.  “How kids from the orphanages come to you and cry to you, and you farbreng with them and in their little Hebrew that they know and the broken Russian that I know, and you sit there, and two and a half hours later you’re still farbrengen and speaking to them, and there’s that connection which is much deeper than language.”

A farbrengen is a Chabad term for an informal Hasidic gathering where food, drink, songs, and uplifting conversation is shared.

“The kids wait for Yeka the whole year,” continued the London native. “They know they’re coming to Yeka and they’re getting craziness. We’re like the crazy Americans.”

The  “crazy Americans” actually hail from the US, UK, Ukraine, and places as far away as Australia. They spent three days of bonding beforehand, driving in a rented van around Ukraine to the graves of Hasidic masters.

The counselors raise as much money as they can in a fundraising campaign, then cover the rest of the camps’ costs themselves.

Ukrainian children go sledidng at Camp Yeka’s winter camp, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (courtesy)

“There’s times we lay out what we can on our credit cards, and if Hashem wants us to be paid back, we get paid back,” said Levin. “It’s what we believe in, and whatever we need to do we’ll get it done. If we have to spend every penny on our credit card to make this happen, this is our shlichus  and that’s what we will do.”

The two-week camps cost less than the equivalent of fifty dollars for each participant.

For many campers, Yeka is their first encounter with Judaism.

Levin recounted the arrival of two blond-haired, blue-eyed brothers who have a non-Jewish father. “We gave the younger one a yarmulke, his brother takes the yarmulke off, he throws it on the floor, and spits. They called their counselors Jewboy, because that’s what they knew from their village. By the end of camp, they were saying Shema Yisrael.”

Ukrainian Jewish children celebrate Purim in Berlin with Camp Yeka after fleeing the Russian invasion, March 16, 2022 (courtesy)

The connection between the counselors and kids continues well beyond the end of camp.

“I call my kids every erev Shabbos,” said Levin, referring to the lead-up to the Jewish sabbath on Friday.

Some of the campers even take the names of their counselors when they decide to undergo circumcisions in their teens.

Keeping campers safe

Seeing the lives of their boys and girls in danger, the Yeka counselors — all of whom were back home in their jobs and studies — immediately shifted into gear.

“It was really really tough, watching the news, and having all our boys being so helpless,” said Levin. “We just had to do something.”

Since the start of the latest Russian invasion on February 24, the Camp Yeka network has dedicated itself entirely to locating its hundreds of participants, helping them evacuate if possible, sending money if not, and caring for them wherever they end up — Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, or Israel.

Firefighters extinguish flames outside an apartment house after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Ukraine, March 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)

Levin and the other boys counselors opened their Russian-language database of 90 campers, put the names into Google Translate, and split up the kids between the counselors. Each one called the boys to find out where they are, what they need, and, most importantly, if they are safe.

(The Yeka can-do attitude was on display even during my conversation with Levin. He paused our interview to take a call from one of the counselors. “Just get on a plane and make it happen,” I heard him say before hanging up.)

Hanoka and her team of counselors have a list of 257 girls to track. “There’s girls that don’t want to leave, or can’t leave, so we’ve been touching base with them every day,” she explained.

The least we can do is provide them with clothing and money, and shower them with love.

The young women have managed to care for their girls from afar in a staggering range of ways.

The counselors convinced a young girl to evacuate Kyiv.

“She called during her journey — which was incredibly long and scary — that she was sad because she was unable to light the Shabbat candles as she had been doing every Friday night since coming to Yeka summer camp,” Hanoka recounted. “Her counselor tried to calm her and over video lit the candles so she could say the blessing.”

Children and their companions from an orphanage in Odesa, Ukraine, arrive at a hotel in Berlin, Friday, March 4, 2022 (AP Photo/Steffi Loos)

The girl has since made it safely to Netanya in Israel.

Another girl made it out of Warsaw after a harrowing journey, but without any familiar faces in Poland, she wanted to get to Vienna to join friends. “She had never been on a plane before, so we had to walk her through each step and arranged for someone to bring her to the airport and meet her upon arrival, and took her out to fill up a suitcase of clothing, cosmetics, et cetera,” said Hanoka.

“These kids literally lost everything,” Hanoka continued. “The least we can do is provide them with clothing and money, and shower them with love.”

The girls counselors have also been receiving guidance from trauma therapists from Chai Lifeline as they deal with challenging and unexpected situations every day.

One of the major efforts is getting emergency funds to children in urgent need. “We get requests, we need money for bread, we need money for food, and we’re so lucky to have that direct contact with them,” Levin said.

Jews pray in the basement of a synagogue in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (Courtesy of Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch via JTA)

As cyberattacks, curfews, withdrawal limits, and other disruptions make it difficult to reliably send money to their campers, the boys counselors transfer cryptocurrency to one of the counselors in Ukraine, who then gets cash to the local kids.

With Russian forces capturing several cities with Jewish populations, the counselors have tried to help as much as possible boys and girls living under Russian control.

Levin has been sending money to a boy’s family in Berdiansk which just had a baby. With food prices spiraling out of control, the family could no longer afford staples like bread. “For me, that’s my priority of operations,” he said.

The girls counselors are still unable to reach some of their campers in the battered coastal city of Mariupol, under siege by Russians since the start of the war.

“One mother and daughter were only able to respond after six days of Yeka staff calling,” said Hanoka. “They had just succeeded in leaving the city.”

The counselors are now working to help the pair leave Ukraine altogether.

In Europe and Israel

The work of the Yeka staff continues once their campers manage to cross the border out of Ukraine.

On March 6, the Mironova Jewish orphanage from Dnipro escaped Ukraine on buses. The orphanage is run by a Ukrainian Chabad couple, and David, the husband, was stopped at the border because he is of military age.  When his wife made it to Warsaw with the rest of the group, she messaged Levin in a panic. She was stuck in a strange city with teenagers and no plan.

That same night, two Yeka counselors, Yitzchok Achtur and Boruch Okinov, hopped on a flight from the US to Poland. The next day Achtur and Okinov were already out shopping and go-karting with the Ukrainian teens.

Camp Yeka counselors take Jewish orphans shopping in Warsaw, March 2022 (courtesy)

Days later, the two Americans and local Chabad Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Stambler ran a Shabbat program in a Warsaw hotel for the orphanage and more than a hundred other refugees.

Another Jewish orphanage from Odessa — some 75 children and 100 adults with various connections to them — ended up in Berlin. Two counselors, Mendel Goodman and Shneur Lerner, flew across the Atlantic to join them, carrying 7 suitcases of Kosher candy, toys, games, and supplies. One quit his job to make the trip, and the other flew on a one-way ticket.

In Vienna, where over 50 Yeka campers from Dnipro are living, three male counselors — Avraham Branover, Sholom Friedfertig and Moishe Lifshitz — set up an emergency school for refugees with a local Chabad rabbi. They, too, flew to Europe with suitcases full of games, Purim paraphernalia, and basic supplies.

In Israel, Yeka counselors joined the children from the Chabad-run Alumim Children’s Home and Social Rehabilitation Center for Jewish Children in Zhytomyr at the KKL-JNF Field and Forest Center in Nes Harim.

Jewish orphans from Ukraine at a go-kart facility in Warsaw, Poland, with Camp Yeka (courtesy)

Counselors from the Yeka girls camp have flown to Berlin and Vienna, where they spent Purim throwing parties for their campers and handing out mishloach manot.

Camp must go on

The war in Ukraine is not going to stop the Yeka counselors from putting camps together this year. They are already planning a Passover camp in Israel in less than a month, and are looking at a summer camp back in Ukraine if the fighting has ended by then.

“If there’s Jews in Ukraine, we’ll go back there,” said Levin.

For all the effort and care the Yeka counselors put in, they learn even more from the kids, explained Levin. “They’re pashuta yidden , real neshamas [simple pure Jews, real pure souls]. They hold on to my tzitzis for davening, they don’t want to let go. You can feel their holiness.”

When they can, the children let their counselors know how much they appreciate their round-the-clock efforts.

“It means a lot to them to know they have people looking out for them and caring for them,” said Hanoka.

“Thanks, it’s very important for all of us, your time and attention,” a girl in the Russian-occupied city Kherson wrote to Hanoka in a text message. “Thank you so much for your care and love.”

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