With boost from New Orleans, Ukrainian teens get respite at Ramah sports camp

Arnie Fielkow, second from left behind Ukrainian flag, was in San Francisco on July 5 to greet seven Ukrainian athletes spending a month at Ramah Sports Academy

Seven teens from Ukraine are spending a month hearing coaches’ whistles in California rather than air raid sirens, thanks to an initiative by Maccabi USA.

Arnie Fielkow of New Orleans, a vice president at Maccabi USA and former Federation CEO, envisioned time at Ramah Sports Academy in California as a way to support the Ukrainian Jewish community by providing an escape for the summer for some teen athletes.

Maccabi USA is the American branch of Maccabi World Union, which puts on the Maccabiah Games in Israel every four years and promotes Jewish participation in sports.

Fielkow has been spearheading Maccabi USA’s response to the Ukraine war, as it is personal for him. In 2007, he adopted two daughters from Ukraine, and they have relatives still in the country. Last year, Fielkow tried unsuccessfully to get them out of Ukraine. “They are still subject to threats and missiles at times,” despite being in western Ukraine, away from much of the fighting.

He added that the Ukrainians “are fighting so courageously. It’s important for us to support their efforts and protect democracy.”

Fielkow said there are three areas that Maccabi USA is working on now. First is the current Ramah experience. Second, he wants to see a series of visits to communities around the country to talk about what Maccabi USA is, and promote assistance to Ukraine during those visits, and third, after the war ends, to have missions for members of the Maccabi USA family to visit Ukraine and help in the rebuilding.

“We really want to help the Jewish community of Ukraine, and especially members of the Maccabi Ukraine family, which are scattered all over the region,” he said.

Six months ago, Fielkow called Amy Skopp Cooper, national director of the Ramah system, to see if they would be interested in a partnership. Ramah immediately agreed to make spaces available tuition-free, and Fielkow set out to raise the money to bring the teens to the country. “We were able to accommodate seven youth” with a full-month session the sports specialty camp, which is housed at Ramah of Northern California. The Academy was established five years ago, and until this summer had been housed in Connecticut.

Part of the New Orleans fundraising was done at the community’s Chanukah celebrations, with a Nola Together for Ukraine event preceding Chanukah at the Riverwalk, and in conjunction with the Uptown Jewish Community Center’s Southern Fried Chanukah. Three organizations, including Maccabi USA, received funds from the events. “I’m really proud of our local New Orleans community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, for stepping up and supporting the Ukrainian people,” Fielkow said.

In a Maccabi USA statement, Alex Rubin, Ramah Sports Academy’s assistant director, said “we are hopeful that a few weeks on the shores of the Pacific Ocean will be enjoyable for these campers who have survived circumstances unimaginable to many of our campers.”

Some of the teens are still living in Ukraine, “a couple living in the real danger areas,” Fielkow said. Others are elsewhere in the region, having fled their homes due to the fighting.

The delegation is led by 18-year-old Ilya Miroshnichenko, a Kharkov native and Makkabi Ukraine veteran who has been living in Slovakia for the past year.

Others have Makkabi experience, including Alexey Kulik, 13-year-old son of the chairman of Makkabi in Nikolaev. Leonid Bereslavich, 15, competed in the World Maccabiah last year in Israel.

Delegations from Ukraine will also go to the JCC Maccabi Games, a separate entity from the World Maccabiah, which will be held in Israel in July and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in August. At the 2017 JCC Maccabi Games in Birmingham, there was a delegation from Vinnitsya, Birmingham’s sister city in Ukraine.

There were several hurdles to overcome due to the war. Visas had to be secured in Slovakia, and they flew out of Vienna. On July 5, Fielkow was in San Francisco to greet the teens. “They were exceptionally excited,” he said. “It’s going to be a nice four weeks for them, to get away and have fun as kids.”