Campers from the Fremont Gan Israel day camp enjoy a day at Six Flags, July 1, 2021.
Campers from the Fremont Gan Israel day camp enjoy a day at Six Flags, July 1, 2021.

‘Birthright Judaism’ camp scholarship program helps families

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Growing up in Soviet-era Ukraine in the 1970s and ’80s, attending Jewish summer camp was not an option for Rabbi Shimon Margolin of San Francisco.

The “first time I stepped into a synagogue was in 1989 when I was 17 years [old] in my native city of Dnepropetrovsk,” he told J. by email. “Later on, as I became more observant, I worked as a counselor in Jewish day and overnight camps. I saw how strong of an impact it has on the children attending them.”

When Margolin immigrated to San Francisco in 1994, he was surprised to see that the young Jews here, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, weren’t going to Jewish summer camp. For many of them, it was simply a matter of money, and for others it was a lack of interest in participating in Jewish life.

Rabbi Shimon Margolin
Rabbi Shimon Margolin

Now the executive director of the nonprofit Russian-speaking Jewish Community of SF Bay Area, Margolin has come up with a way to help: a camp scholarship program called Birthright Judaism. Many of the beneficiaries are the children of Russian-speaking parents.

The program is modeled after the popular Birthright Israel, which takes young Jewish adults to Israel for 10 days, all expenses paid.

“Nothing works like Birthright Israel — the free, 10-day trip of immersion in Jewish culture and history,” he said.

Funds for Birthright Judaism were raised from local philanthropists — “mostly anonymous Russian Jews giving back to the community — those who go by the dictum of the Torah that anonymous giving [is a mitzvah],” Margolin said. This year about $20,000 was raised through a Facebook fundraiser, most of it from the Jewish community organization he heads. As of July 19, the program had funded 186 new campers, and 120 had received “significant financial aid. The total budget of the program is $110,000,” Margolin said.

Margolin partnered with nearly a dozen of Chabad’s Gan Israel day camps around the Bay Area. The camps contribute 20 percent toward the cost of the grant, which provides one free week of Jewish summer camp to each child. About 10 percent of the funding came from EZRA USA, a former American arm of the Israel-based provider of Birthright Israel trips that focuses on Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Chaya Fuss is co-director of Chabad of Fremont, which began running a day camp in 2017. They gained significant participation this year, with 35 campers — many of them first-timers. Half were partially subsidized through the Birthright Judaism project, she said. This made it possible for the camp to break even.

“Fremont is one of the Jewish communities that benefits from our initiative greatly,” Margolin said, adding that the city has a “significant number of unaffiliated young Jewish families who are not employed in the high-tech industry” and don’t necessarily have the money to send their children to camp.

Fuss agreed. “There was a need in the community. There was no Jewish camp in the area, and there was one parent, especially, who’d been to such a camp in Ukraine as a teenager and was profoundly affected by it, and wanted her son to have the same experience.”

Though the Fremont Gan Israel day camp won’t turn anyone away for lack of funds, the challenge was greatly relieved by the Birthright Judaism grant, she said.

Sofia Davtyan and Kaitlyn Modal make a new friend at a petting zoo as part of a Bay Area Chabad day camp, June 22, 2021.
Sofia Davtyan and Kaitlyn Modal make a new friend at a petting zoo as part of the Fremont Gan Israel day camp, June 22, 2021.

It’s that sense of belonging — of “knowing they’re not alone and are part of a larger family” — that may be the best part of the experience, Fuss said.

Helen Blossom of Fremont, whose 9-year-old daughter Sofia attended camp for the first time this year, said it was her hope that the experience would help her daughter deepen her Jewish roots and develop a sense of community. The family would do it again and would recommend the experience to others, she said.

“The best part is communication with the very nice people, making kids feel at home and always busy with creative classes and activities,” Blossom said.

Lena Vinogradov also enrolled her 6-year-old daughter Sarah in the Fremont “Gan Izzy” camp for the first time this year. She said if it wasn’t for the financial aid, she would have sent her daughter elsewhere.

“My daughter really enjoyed the camp,” she said. “I got a recommendation from my friend. Also, we want to be connected with the Jewish community in our area. Great vibes, caring staff, exciting activities. Everything was great.”

With the Birthright Judaism camp ending for the year, it already appears to be paying dividends, Fuss said.

“From our summer camp, we already have families who are planning to enroll their kids in Hebrew school; who have made changes in their homes,” she said. “It changes people’s lives.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.