Russian-speaking children ages 8-17 spend their summers at Camp Gesher, a program of the Shalom Institute in Lake View Terrace, CA.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Shalom Institute partnered to send Ukrainian refugee children to an overnight Jewish summer camp in Southern California. 

From Aug. 2 to 14, nearly 30 refugee children, ages 8-17, many of them separated from fathers who are fighting in the current war in Ukraine, enjoyed a respite from recent harrowing experiences. They took part in normal summer camp activities including archery, arts-and-crafts, mountain biking, animal education, swimming, waterslides, basketball and soccer.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Shalom Institute partnered to send Ukrainian refugee children to an overnight Jewish summer camp in Southern California. 

From Aug. 2 to 14, nearly 30 refugee children, ages 8-17, many of them separated from fathers who are fighting in the current war in Ukraine, enjoyed a respite from recent harrowing experiences. They took part in normal summer camp activities including archery, arts-and-crafts, mountain biking, animal education, swimming, waterslides, basketball and soccer.

At no cost to their families, the children attended Camp Gesher, the signature program of the Shalom Institute. Camp Gesher, annually supported by the grantmaking Genesis Philanthropy Group, was designed for Russian-speaking Jewish children living in North America.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Shalom Institute raised over $80,000 to sponsor 29 Ukrainian Jewish refugee campers at Camp Gesher, along with four staff members and several mental health professionals, according to Bill Kaplan, executive director at the Shalom Institute.  The campers came from Los Angeles, Ventura County, Orange County and San Diego, Kaplan said.

Camp Gesher Director Lena Geller was instrumental in bringing Ukrainian children to the camp. In March, she reached out to Kaplan and asked to travel overseas to support relief work serving Ukrainian refugees.

“She called, saying the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] was asking for volunteers at the border. She said, ‘I would really love to go.’ She was there for 11 days and was really impacted by the experience,” Kaplan said. 

She took part in a volunteer mission with the JDC on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Alongside volunteers from around the world, Geller provided comfort, guidance and hope to those in the war-torn region. When she returned, however, she realized she wanted to do more to help. 

“It became clear to me that my job helping refugees from my Ukrainian homeland was not over with just that trip,” she said. “What became abundantly clear is that we have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Ukrainian refugees here in the United States, especially children. These children need love, community, kindness, and happiness — all of which can be provided with an experience at Camp Gesher this summer.”

The Shalom Institute’s campaign for a Ukrainian refugee camper fund garnered support from 33 individual donors. 

Among those that stepped up was the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the L.A. Federation has fundraised to support Ukrainian families, and when the Shalom Institute contacted the Federation to support its work, the Federation was happy to assist. 

“When it became clear the war in Ukraine was becoming a more protracted experience, the Federation shifted into thinking, ‘How do we create opportunities – fun opportunities – for refugee families here in the U.S., Israel and Europe?” Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the L.A. Federation, said in an interview. “‘How do we do that in a way that feels right to us, meets our mission and has impact that is necessary?’” 

Camp Gesher is currently the only summer camp in North America for Russian-speaking Jewish families. Every year, approximately 140 kids attend the camp, held at the Gold Creek Center in Lake View Terrace, CA. This year will be extra meaningful. 

“Our Federation was determined not just to help these children escape the war, but [also] committed to helping them in the long-term by making sure they were able to begin new and better lives wherever in the world they settled,” Farkas said. “When we received the request from our cherished partners at Shalom Institute, we knew this was a wonderful and powerful way to help accomplish that.”

Kaplan echoed a similar sentiment. 

“They basically said, ‘It’s our moral obligation to provide this.’”