Oleg Jonelis

  • Oleg Jonelis
  • Alumni and director Olameinu summer camp in the Baltics
  • Sees summer camp as a way to build Jewish identity and leadership

“When you see all the kids saying the prayers together, lighting the candles, when everybody is so beautiful singing Shabbat songs and dancing dances, it’s a great feeling.”

Oleg Jonelis first attended JDC’s Olameinu summer camp in the Baltics in 2002, when his father sent him to enrich his Jewish cultural education. Eleven years later, Jonelis is the camp’s director, and he said supervising more than 200 kids aged 7 to 12 each summer from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania couldn’t be more rewarding.

“Olameinu makes people come to the Jewish community and stay there, because a lot of kids start from the camp and after that want to be part of the community,” he says. “What is also great is that their parents, after seeing their kids so excited, also want to join the community.”

For Oleg, who was a madrich (counselor) and camp coordinator for several years before becoming the camp’s director, Shabbat is the best part of the Olameinu experience.

“It’s hard work to create a nice and cute Jewish atmosphere, but when you see all the kids saying the prayers together, lighting the candles, when everybody is so beautiful singing Shabbat songs and dancing dances, it’s a great feeling,” he says. “That’s the time when I know that I’m doing the right job, and it’s kind of my reward.”

Twelve-year-old Daniel Tarahovski, from Klaipeda, Lithuania, said he’d “definitely” attend Olameinu again. “I have my Jewish identity back at home, but in camp I really feel it stronger,” he says. “Here, everybody around me is Jewish. We dance Israeli dances and I especially like that we say theShema and Modeh Ani prayers in the morning and do the rituals before Shabbat.”

Diana Glikmane, an 11-year-old from Riga, Latvia, who attended the camp for the first time this summer, agrees. She said she particularly enjoyed Olameinu’s music programs and a session explaining Tisha B’Av, since she wasn’t previously familiar with the fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. “I always feel Jewish,” she says. “But in camp I can do Jewish things that I don’t do at home.”

For his part, Jonelis has big dreams for Olameinu. Though he’s sure of its value to the Baltics, he’d love to expand it further and draw in a wider international crowd. It’s a Jewish educational model that has a lot to offer, he says. “Olameinu is not only a place for kids to be in a Jewish environment and study about Judaism, but also a place for young leaders grew up and strengthen their leadership skills,” he said. “Olameinu teaches young leaders in the Baltic Jewish communities and provides tools for future growth for those communities.”

Jewish Federation supports camps, retreats and other Jewish renewal  programs in the Baltics through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).