Monday, August 20, 2007

July's Best Bab- Dancing Queen: Irina Bukhel

This pioneering pensioner was one of the first to join Vitebsk Hesed’s dance troupe. “As soon as I heard about the club, I made sure my name was at the top of the sign up sheet,” said the 77 year-old. Affectionately called the Vitebskie Devchata, or Gals of Vitebsk, the group currently has 15 regular members who come together twice-a-week in the Barry and Merle Ginsburg Community Building in Vitebsk to practice eye-popping dances which never betray the ladys’ ages. “We make all of our costumes ourselves,” Irina proudly explained displaying her blue and white gown and crocheted bonnet. “We gals are proof to the world that grandmas can move!”

Top Photo: Irina poses in one of her fur hats after rehearsal. "I have a much bigger one," she says. Bottom Photo: Irina in motion!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Camp Raduga: People with Limits Push the Boundaries

To the average Minsk resident, traveling a mere one kilometer outside the city is no major escapade. But to participants and organizers of the Raduga camp, that kilometer is for some, an achievement of a lifetime. Raduga, Russian for rainbow, is a club for young Jewish adults living with psychological and physical disabilities. The club is organized by Hesed Rachamim, Minsk’s main Jewish welfare organization, and meets at the Minsk Jewish campus twice a week.

The main activities of Raduga aim toward the integration and social adaptation of its members, especially working on building confidence, independence, and Jewish identity through cooking, arts and crafts, theater, and physical fitness.

“For urban Belarusians, the summer is a time to escape from work and the stresses of city life. However, for individuals suffering from severe disabilities, it can be virtually impossible to leave the apartment, let alone the city,” explained Lena Efremenko, year-round Raduga social worker. For this reason, the Raduga camp, which provided transportation accessible to individuals with special needs, is liberation from the monotony of the rest of the year. “Especially for young people trapped at home all summer, this gives them a release,” Efremenko added.

The camp is located in Terassova, a small village dominated by a large church. The house in which the campers are living is specifically designed for retreats for disabled individuals, and the house itself is in fact owned by the church. “Icons are apparent throughout the rooms, but the staff here is understanding and lets us put up our own Jewish symbols around the house,” Lena illustrated, pointing to the large “Grace After Meals” poster. “We face no trouble here with displaying our Jewishness.”

The camp is run in two 10-day shifts, with about 20 people per shift, including some mothers who accompany their acutely dependent children.

An important part of camp is of course, the physical element. For that, Raduga staff brought in Boris Bachkovsky, who has made a career of competing himself and training others in competitions for the disabled. He holds the title for world champion of wheelchair dancing, and his is currently preparing a Raduga delegation to compete in this year’s Special Olympics games in Shanghai. Boris designed games that encompassed the both the fitness and emotional aspects of sports, giving campers an opportunity to test their limits, and feel proud of their success.

The camp also offers cooking, painting, and of course singalongs around the bonfire.

To an outside observer of the camp, what is immediately visible might be the tragic stories of helpless individuals facing a dead end on the road of life. But to Lena, these youngsters represent improvement and potential. “I have been working with these young people for years now, and it is amazing to see how much progress some have made since they joined the group.” Pointing to a conspicuously cheerful brunette playing horseshoes with another camper, she expanded, “Natasha over there was in a wheel chair at last year’s camp. She and her family had despaired of any possible improvement in her condition, and Natasha always had a dejected look on her face. Now look at her. She is literally standing on her own two feet and is so happy about it.”

The first shift of Raduga camp ended with a song session around the bonfire. They sang Soviet marches, children’s songs, and pop. The song before bedtime was “Shalom al Yisrael,” and although not everyone could pronounce the words, everyone was singing, rejoicing in their emerging personalities, abilities, and challenges they face ahead.