In a few weeks, there will be a big celebration. Mendel (whose name is changed for privacy), a Chassidisher bochur no different to you or me, who as a child grew up in a regular Ukrainian home, is getting married under a Chuppah. The thing is, unless you knew him personally, you would not be able to recognize his origins.
The thing is, unless you knew him personally, you would not be able to recognize his origins.
Kiev native Mendel, then Misha, began kickboxing at age 10. By age 12, he was training five days a week and taking part in Ukraine Boxing Championships for his age range. At one point, he was the champion of Ukraine in his age group! Boxing is a widely popular sport in Ukraine (Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are former world heavyweight champions; Vitali Klitschko is now the mayor of Kiev), and Misha was advancing rapidly.
During the summer that he was set to turn 13, he was already training twice a day. When Misha’s mother heard about Camp Yeka from a Chabad rabbi in Kiev, she suggested that her son take a break and spend two weeks in the relaxing atmosphere of the Jewish overnight camp.
“I really didn’t want to go because it was a religious camp, and I wasn’t interested,” says Misha, today 23.
His first days were difficult. He didn’t know the Jewish songs. He had never seen children his age praying. But as the days went by, he started to let it all sink in.
“I had thought religious Jews just sat and studied all day long,” he says. “In Yeka, I saw these American counselors in kippahs and tzitzits running around, playing sports, having fun. You could be a normal person and live like a Jew, and I had never realized that before.”
Towards the end of camp, Misha asked to have a bris milah, a way of connecting to his Jewish identity and to choose his very own Jewish name.
When camp was over, the young boxer was in no condition to compete in the boxing championship he had hoped for, but he was happy. When he finally got back to form, he didn’t want to train on Shabbat, and so began trying to exchange his Saturday training sessions for Friday.
“Then my trainer told me that if I was serious about competing, I needed to train every day. I needed to make a decision,” he recalls. “I took a few days to think about what I wanted, Shabbat or boxing. I chose Shabbat.”
After that summer, Misha, now Mendel, decided that he wanted to pursue a religious education and go to a full Yeshiva.
After spending many years through Mesivta and Zal all over Israel, now with a long beard, a hat a jacket and an enthusiasm for shlichus and mivtzoyim, Mendel went on shlichus to an American Yeshiva, for American bochurim and got his Smicha to boot!
The truth is, Mendel’s story is not unique.
Here in Camp Yeka, there are countless stories of real lives changed and real chassidim made.
Our goal is simple: Rekindle Jewish souls, one camp at a time.
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