Ukraine refugees, Israel youth shaken by war find relief at ‘Hallelujah’ summer camp

On Israel’s coast, international gathering gives teenagers from abroad and Gaza border communities a sense of normalcy; ‘When you live with war all the time, you want peace’

Participants at 'Camp Hallelujah' on Israel's coast, August 12, 2022. (Courtesy/Camp Hallelujah)
Participants at 'Camp Hallelujah' on Israel's coast, August 12, 2022. (Courtesy/Camp Hallelujah)

An unconventional summer camp project this month in Israel has welcomed campers who have been shaken by the effects of war, bringing together youth from Ukraine and southern Israel and elsewhere to bond and cope with trauma on Israel’s coast.

“Camp Hallelujah,” an international summer camp founded by the youth movement Habonim Dror, drew participants to its beachfront campground outside of Haifa for its third annual leadership summit this year. Nearly 600 campers from across Israel and abroad joined, among them Ukraine refugees and children from towns on the Gaza border, all bonding in spite of language barriers and enjoying the Israeli summer.

The camp’s efforts are part of the larger “Project Hallelujah,” which has brought children from Europe, South America and other areas to the international camp in Israel in recent years, among other cross-cultural projects throughout the country.

The project’s other initiatives, including a unity program in Israeli-Arab cities following the May 2021 riots, also aim to promote dialogue and “a celebration of difference.”

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the project took its activities outside Israel for the first time, founding a retreat camp in Hungary, which refugees and their families attended in June. Organizers said they were compelled to act by seeing the plight of those fleeing war, and felt that the camp’s mission of fostering cross-cultural encounters and youth empowerment would prove beneficial to Ukrainians and other campers.

“There’s no more burning, painful topic than the one of Ukraine,” said camp director Doron Moshe. “It was the obvious thing that we wanted to bring in and empower the Ukrainian youth — in Europe and here in Israel.”

Like a traditional summer camp, the teenage participants at Camp Hallelujah enjoy days filled with sports and group activities, with the added perk of surf lessons thanks to the coastal location. But for campers coming from areas of conflict, the peaceful environment of camp can be a therapeutic experience after going through trauma and upheaval, Moshe said, by allowing them to “finally get a taste of normality.”

‘Camp Hallelujah’ campers surf near Haifa, August 12, 2022. (Courtesy/Camp Hallelujah)

The camp is equipped with the resources to support children who have experienced trauma with trained counselors and an on-site professional adviser. Moshe said that the camp serves as a positive introduction to Israeli society for new immigrants, and has succeeded in acclimating other campers, such as a group from Ethiopia.

Though the program is experienced at making international arrangements for campers, Moshe said, organizers did encounter novel challenges with this year’s participants, such as waivers the Ukrainians’ fathers could not sign because they were on the front line.

Dasha, 17, a camper from Odesa, remembers the reaction when other campers first heard that she had come from Ukraine.

“They were sorry, I guess, and there was a little bit of sadness behind us,” she said, “but after speaking more, we forgot about that and were just speaking with each other, just like friends.”

Dasha said that after a week at camp, she’s grateful to have joined.

“I can chill there, I can speak with many friends, know about more people, and have a nice time. I can maybe keep my mind off other problems,” she said.

Campers take part in a group activity at ‘Camp Hallelujah’ on August 12, 2022. (Courtesy/Camp Hallelujah)

The camp’s core component, its organizers said, is its leadership training, which is incorporated into group physical activities, arts and discussions addressing social issues. The camp’s mission focuses on environmental issues and tolerance, but organizers said the talks are camper-led.

“First, we ask them ‘what bothers you?’” Moshe said. “What do you want to change?”

The answer often comes from issues campers experience in their own communities and countries, but after hearing the accounts of campers from Ukraine and the Gaza border, other participants have had their eyes opened to broader issues.

“I think a lot of us believe in peace,” Oz, 14, said of the perspective brought by fellow campers from the Gaza border. “When you live with war all the time, you want peace.”

Participants at ‘Camp Hallelujah’ on August 12, 2022. (Courtesy/Camp Hallelujah)

Ofir Liebstein, head of the Gaza border’s Sha’ar Hanegev regional council and chairman of Habonim Dror, said children coming from the Gaza area also serve as models of leadership for the other campers.

“The kids here from the Gaza border area have the tools that they learned over the years on how to cope,” Liebstein said, including how to work through stressful situations and how to speak about difficult experiences and feelings. Just as the worry-free environment of summer camp eases the post-traumatic stress for the Gaza-area children, he said, other campers, too, can learn from their resolve.

“It’s something that is so far away from stress,” Oz said. The camp makes it feel as if this month’s Operation Breaking Dawn conflict was “half a year, a year ago.”

Oz, whose family lives on Kibbutz Erez adjacent to the Gaza border, had been part of the year-round initiative run by Project Hallelujah, and joined the camp this year for the first time. He and his siblings were among those who evacuated to northern Israel during the operation, which took less than a week before the camp’s start. Many of the evacuees who planned on attending the camp were unsure if they’d be able to make it.

“In the south,” he said, “kids are texting me ‘Doron, I will come straight from the north… I don’t have clothes, can we buy some stuff?’”

In the end, this year’s camp went on as planned, partially due to the efforts of counselors and staff in the wake of the Gaza flare-up, Moshe said.

One first-time camper, 14-year-old Paulina from Ukraine, said she’s glad she joined Camp Hallelujah, but her joy was bittersweet. Camp was fun, she said, but she only wishes she would have been able to have this experience “not because of war, but just to visit Israel.”

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