Сamp on Wheels is a unique model of a summer camp that combines volunteer work with an educational tour of Jewish sites. Such a camp is only possible in the former Pale of Settlement, now Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Lithuania, because of the Jewish life that once flourished there.
Now in its sixth year, Camp on Wheels attracted approximately 100 participants (students and young adults) from all over Belarus this past July. Camp of Wheels is run jointly by the Jewish Agency and Hillel. This August, a pilot based on Camp on Wheels was held in Moldova.
Guests from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta during the visit to Camp on Wheels
The camp always begins with an intensive two-day educational seminar where participants learn about the Jewish legacy of the local area and listen to lectures on subjects ranging from synagogue architecture to deciphering tombstone inscriptions. The teachers are all Russian speaking experts and professors. For example, one of the teachers is an expert on epitaphs on Jewish tombstones and Jewish cemeteries in the Pale of Settlement.
This summer, the first term of Camp on Wheels focused on renovating the Jewish cemetery in Volozhin. Volozhin is the site of one of the most prominent yeshivas of Lithuanian (non-Chassidic) Judaism. The Jewish community of Volozhin and the yeshiva peaked in the 19th century and was already in decline by WWII. Under Nazi occupation, the Nazis mercilessly executed the Jews of Volozhin and extinguished any remnant of Jewish life. Today, there are only a few Jews living in Volozhin and none was born there.
The famous Volozhin yeshiva overlooks the cemetery
Before the campers tended to the cemetery it looked like a large overgrown field with tombstones here and there, and a large memorial tombstone for R. Chaim of Volozhin in the middle that was falling apart.
A memorial for the Jews of Volozhin who perished in the Holocaust
Large memorial tombstone of R. Chaim Volozhiner
Today, thanks to the campers and other volunteers, the site of the cemetery has been mowed and the gravestones carefully catalogued for further research. The fence around the cemetery and R. Chaim Volozhiner's grave have been restored and repainted.
In previous years, Camps on Wheels focused on renovating historic synagogues and yeshivas. Each year, campers stay in very simple accommodations and work under the supervision of experts, applying the skills they learned from a pre-camp seminar. After a few days of work the students embark on an educational tour of Jewish heritage sites and former shtetls, covering five locations each day. An educational component is connected to each site. The program of this year's Camp on Wheels takes the participants from destruction (abandoned cemetery in Volozhin) to rebirth (a synagogue in Grodno that is being rebuilt).
Tree of Life tombstone
Tree of Life Tombstone with the branches cut off
Participation in Camp on Wheels makes a profound impact on participants. A powerful educational tool, the camp connects students to what is essentially their family history in a very direct, hands-on way. Many participants have gone on to do genealogical research after the camp, discovering previously unknown family stories and sharing them with other participants. Some campers got a head start on Hebrew while deciphering epitaphs, and today speak fluently. Others have found friends for life. All of them connected to a shared heritage and a common past, and are now strengthened in building a common future.
Group shot of Camp of Wheels participants and the delegation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta
The Jewish cemetery in Volozhin before the Camp on Wheels participants' hard work and renovation.
If you would like to know more about Camp on Wheels, or other Jewish Agency summer camps, please contact Anya Zhuravel at firstname.lastname@example.org