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Ilya Dvorkin: Ukraine is one of the main Jewish focal areas of international significance

One of the founders of the Sambation association discusses Judaism, Jewish Ukraine and the creative quests of Jewish youth

How did the Sambation camp come into being?

Our camp was founded 10 years ago as a project of academic organizations and universities. An important role was played by the Jerusalem University, and we work with different universities all over the former Soviet Union – with Moscow State University, with the St. Petersburg State University, and with academic programs of Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Our project was founded so that creative youth could not only immerse themselves in the history of Jewish civilization and its relationships with other cultures, but also so that our participants could create something themselves. Sambation is designed not only for education, but also for creativity. We appeal to creative people who would like to take part in the development of modern culture, and not just be consumers of it. For this reason, along with existing academic programs on Judaism, we organized a creative program. Our project includes holiday schools, creativity, expeditions and camps.

Several thousand people have already taken part in the project. The backbone is several hundred people, who take part in the majority of our programs, and create the content of our events. Additionally, these people create – they write music, paint pictures, make films, conduct academic studies… I would like to note that these are people of different ages, from 12 to gray-haired academics. Although our core is young people.

The pre-history of the project is very interesting, and connected with Ukraine. Around 30 years ago, young people, who are no longer not exactly young, began to take an interest in Jewish culture. And these people understood very quickly that the main centers of Jewish civilization over the past five centuries were not in Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev, but scattered around small Jewish towns of Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. When this became quite clear, expeditions to Jewish towns began. These expeditions were initiated primarily from Petersburg and led to the founding of the first Jewish university in the former Soviet Union – the Petersburg Jewish University, which I had the honor to take part in founding and heading.

The project grew quite swiftly, and we were joined by the Jewish University in Moscow, the Jewish studies department at Moscow State University, Solomon University, the Kievo-Mohyla Academy, universities of other countries, and Sefer. A whole academic network arose, which studied these towns, gathered materials, took interviews, and documented and photographed things.

However, after a short time passed, we realized that things which would be more interesting to find were not preserved in villages. There were ruined houses and synagogues there, and sometimes you could meet a person who could tell you something interesting, but nowadays these people have practically vanished. All of the most important things are concealed in the depths of history, and this is what made us go beyond the boundaries of the traditional academic approach, adding creative things. This led to our attempts to organize trips for creative people. The first of these trips was held in 2000 and 2001, we gathered a group of artists and left from Kiev. Around 50 artists from various countries and a group of teachers travelled around Ukraine for eight days, gathering not documents but ideas and images. This project had a huge influence on people’s minds, and after this expeditions by the Petersburg Jewish University were resumed. Many people started carrying out studies – Sefer and Ukrainian Jewish organizations. Creative work with people with relevant qualifications was also resumed. Out of this, Sambation was born, as an attempt to gather scholars, artists and musicians who visit a place in order to understand something about it.

This is a pedagogical project, and young people take part in it. Over ten years we have travelled half the world, and Sambation camps have been all over Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Volga region. We go to a certain place and attempt to understand its history, to understand the events that took place there over the centuries, and on the basis of this to build a certain image. During these trips, a new generation of creative Jewish youth is formed.

Who can take part in your project?

Our project is open for everyone, it is Jewish in spirit, but not only Jews take part in it. We accept people who are interested in the development of Jewish civilization. Sometimes it happens that these people have no ancestral link with Jewishness, but they do have an interest in this. At the same time, our project is deeply rooted in Jewish culture, most of our participants study Jewish texts, languages and music.

We try to look into the very foundations, we have permanent beit-midrash, in all projects Jewish traditions are observed, to the extent to which the participants themselves are prepared to observe them. On the other hand, Sambation is a secular project that is open for everyone. This is the paradox, for we combine deep insight into Jewishness with absolute openness.

We hope that Sambation will become a catalyst for the creation of other creative associations.

The camp this year is very interesting not just from the historical viewpoint, but culturally as well. We have two large groups, one starts off from Kiev and the other leaves from Petersburg. The goal of the journey is to study towns with Jewish history. One group visits Hasidic places: Berdichev, Medzhibozh, Mezherichi, Ostrog and Shargorod; the other group visits Mitnagdim places: Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn. Thus in one trip we bring together the entire Jewish history of these places. We will make films and perform concerts in the towns where we stay. The goal of the program is the revival of culture, both Jewish and European.

Who provides academic support besides you? Who are the scholars who work with school children and students?

As I already said, our academic support is the Jerusalem University, plus representatives of the programs and educational institutions with which we make contact.

We also try to work with academic organizations of Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia.

This summer we will hold a school on semiotics in Tartu, Estonia. The location was not chosen by accident. Tartu is an internationally recognized center of semiotic studies. We have also held a program in Vilnius, together with Vilnius University, and worked with the Jewish Museum in Riga.

The absolute majority of modern researchers who are connected with Jewish studies have taken part, are taking part and will take part in our programs.

Your organization popularizes Jewish studies among young intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish. How does this work?

People who are oriented towards European culture usually associate themselves with one culture in particular. But they are also oriented towards certain universal values. Representatives of any nationalities find it interesting to take part in such international creative projects of a universal type such as Sambation. For many Jewish intellectuals, participation in strictly Jewish programs is less interesting than participation in something broader and freer.

Additionally, we rightly believe that Jewish culture is one of the world’s cultures, it is incredibly universal and at the same time it is the foundation not only of western but also part of eastern civilization. Judaism, Jewishness, the Bible – these are the foundation of European culture, both Ukrainian and Russian, this is important to understand. These cultures are impossible without a Jewish component.

Additionally, now, in the 21st century, Jewishness is in the vanguard of searching to find a way out of the cultural crisis that has gripped humanity. A simple example: the most significant philosophers of the humanitarian school in the 20th century, Levinas, Buber, Rosenzweig, are Jewish philosophers. Of course, there were outstanding philosophers of other nationalities, but they were all friends. The task of bringing humanity out of the crisis is common for everyone. For this reason we address everyone.

We believe that Jewish culture is in a difficult situation because of the destruction that it faced in the last century. 100 years ago we were much stronger, but today we have our own country, which helps us to develop, Our programs in a certain sense are a synthesis of three elements, which are Israel, the diaspora, and our friends from among the peoples of the world. Without these friends we are powerless, but they are also powerless without us.

If we’re talking about Ukraine, it’s worth saying that this country is one of the main Jewish focal points of international significance. Historically, half of the Jewish history of the modern era took place on the territory of Ukraine, here Hasidism arose, along with a number of intellectual movements in Jewish philosophy and thought. We very much want to develop Jewish culture in Ukraine, together with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, including state ones. We are currently working with the Euro-Asiatic Jewish Congress and VAAD Ukraine, and hope that this cooperation will lead to success.

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