by Suzanne Pollak
Special to Washington Jewish Week
Whenever Ilan Simanin walks out his front door and realizes he has forgotten something, he always looks in the mirror before retrieving whatever it may be.
It’s not that he is obsessive, it’s just that both his parents were born in the Soviet Union, and there are certain superstitions they have instilled in him. Also, no one in his family would ever clean the house if someone were away.
These behaviors have always been a part of Simanin’s life. But the high school senior at Rockville’s Thomas Wootton High School, who turns 18 this month, has never felt comfortable explaining these family habits to his friends.
Other students didn’t pick on him, the Israeli-born Simanin, who moved to the States when he was about 5 or 6, he said. Still, he always had the feeling that he didn’t quite fit in.
But that all changed two summers ago when he attended Camp Tel Yehudah’s Havurah program in New York. Tel Yehudah is the national senior leadership camp of Young Judaea and is deeply committed to Jewish and Zionist values and tradition. In 2009, it added a two-week program just for teenagers who either were born in Russia or who have parents from there.
That year, 93 campers from grades nine through 12 attended, according to Yelena Pogorelsky, Havurah program manager. Last summer’s Havurah program grew to three-and-a-half weeks and had 133 campers, she said.
Simanin went and loved what he called the “stress-free” atmosphere. “I was surrounded by people who were just like me,” he said.
After attending the camp in 2009, Simanin became active in the Maryland Young Judaea chapter and is about to become the first Havurah camper to go on the Young Judaea Year Course, according to Pogorelsky.
Dina Trembisky, who is a junior at Churchill High School in Potomac, attended the camp during the summers of 2009 and 2010.
“Before I went to Camp Tel Yehudah, I always felt like I was singled out. No one really understood my background,” said the 16-year-old.
Her friends know she is Jewish, but always question why her family has a tree and give out presents on New Year’s. “Everyone was like, that didn’t make sense. Eventually I just gave up” explaining the Russian tradition, she said.
“At camp, I met some kids with the exact same problem.”
Now, “I embrace my uniqueness, thanks to camp,” she said. “My favorite part of camp is probably Shabbat. On Shabbat, the entire camp has this feeling of serenity. We didn’t have to do anything all day. We had dancing and singing and that was so much fun.”
While Trembisky has lived her whole life in America, she speaks Russian. “My parents make me speak Russian,” she said.
The Havurah program has several goals. It strives to bring these Russian teens, who often have limited camping experience, together. It also places “a huge value having an Israeli presence in general,” Pogorelsky said.
“We do spend roughly half our day in educational activities, even during sports. We try to embed lessons,” she said. “Zionism is the main one for the camp overall,” she said, adding that Russian history and culture also are discussed.
Also, Jewish peoplehood and tikkun olam are stressed, said camp director David Weinstein.
While the Havurah campers spend much time together, they are integrated into the general camp, especially during meals when “we come together as one community,” said Pogorelsky.
Pogorelsky said there are other camps Russian Jews can attend. However, most are local, she said, pointing to one in Brooklyn, N.Y., for children from that general area. Camp Tel Yehudah has students from all over the United States, Canada and Israel, she said.
The largest number of campers come from San Francisco and the New York-New Jersey area. “But I believe if you look at percentages, they [the D.C. area] blow everyone else out of the water. It’s one of the largest communities,” Pogorelsky said.
This can be attributed, she said, to Ella Kagan, who runs the Shalom Education Center in Rockville, a school dedicated to children of immigrants.
“This is a unique program, designed for Russian Jewish immigrants. This is a chance for the kids to be together,” she said of the camp. “They live together, stay together.”
Kagan tries to persuade as many as her students to attend the camp as she can. It’s not only a fun camp, but “they are doing something meaningful.” What they experience at camp “is a natural continuation for what we are doing in this school.”
Many of her students have “a strong Jewish identity but don’t belong to a synagogue. Many of our students, their parents don’t feel they need to join any kind of Jewish institution,” she noted.
Kagan already is recruiting students for this summer’s session July 25 to Aug. 18.
Trembisky is too old to attend again, but her younger sister is only 8 years old.
“I am definitely going to make sure they send her there. It was so much fun,” she said.