Foreign Siblings Return for Torah Study


After spending the summer at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-style program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, sisters Olga and Anna Dramchuk expected to be teaching Torah to fellow university students at Hillel in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Instead, they’re back in Los Angeles in search of more Jewish life and learning.

“Lishma was one of the best experiences we ever had as Jews, but it was only the beginning,” said Anna Dramchuk, 18.

Derived from the Hebrew phrase Torah lishma, or Torah studied for its own sake, Lishma was co-founded in 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah, and is co-sponsored by the camp and the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last summer, 13 students took part in the fully funded four-week program.

“People who come to Lishma have a spiritual hunger,” Greyber said.

That includes the Dramchuk sisters, who along with Anna Dramchuk’s friend Irina Kononova, 19, also from Novosibirsk, were the first foreign students to take part in the program. Lisham has graduated a total of 80 students, a quarter of whom are involved in rabbinic studies or other Jewish learning.

“The assumption is that if you’re spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying Torah and living in a Jewish environment, it should change you as a person,” Greyber said.

But for the Dramchuks, the change was so dramatic that, after returning to Novosibirsk on July 19, they felt they could no longer stay.

“I was crying every day. When I woke up in the morning, the tears were alive,” said Olga Dramchuk, 20.

“I never had such a feeling before, the feeling that I’m in the wrong place,” Anna Dramchuk added.

They tried to do Shabbat at home, but it wasn’t the same, and they had no place to socialize with other Jews. The Hillel, where for the last two and a half years they had taught twice-weekly programs for the elderly, called Beit Midrash, celebrating holidays and sharing reflections from the Torah, was closed for the summer.

They had planned to start a second Beit Midrash program for university students and to continue their own education. Olga Dramchuk was to start her fourth year at the Siberian Independent University, where she was studying linguistics. Anna Dramchuk was to begin her second year at the Novosibirsk State Academy of Economics and Management, with the goal of pursuing a diplomatic career.

But they felt another destiny calling them. And so, after debating whether to go to Israel or return to the United States, they procured a visa and money for tickets and, with their parents’ blessing, returned to Los Angeles on Aug. 13. “We felt like someone, or some supernatural power, was helping us because we did everything so quickly,” Anna Dramchuk said.

But now they are doing everything themselves. Olga Dramchuk is living on her own and working. She hopes eventually to attend the UJ and especially wants to learn more Hebrew.

And Anna Dramchuk has married a young man she met last summer, Truman Weatherly, whose grandmother is Jewish and who is interested in learning more about Judaism. She plans to work and to return to school, ideally to the UJ. In the meantime, she is looking for a volunteer job that involves Jewish teenagers.

Their friend Irina, meanwhile, also took a detour. In September, following a love of music, she auditioned for “Superstar KZ,”, a Kazakhstan version of “American Idol,” where she was one of 18 contestants selected to participate. She credits her Lishma experience with helping her realize this passion and giving her the courage to pursue it. “Right now I hope my dream of being a singer will come true, but I will always live my Jewish life,” she wrote from Russia.

The Dramchuk sisters grew up in Kazakhstan, where they had some exposure to Jewish traditions through their father and grandmother, who observed Shabbat and holidays. Four years ago, the family moved to Novosibirsk, though their grandmother remained in Kazakhstan.

In Novosibirsk, with its Jewish community of 20,000, the young women discovered what Olga Dramchuk calls “a second family.” Their Jewish life centered on the Hillel organization, which in Russia is communal, attracting students from a variety of universities as well as a contingent of elderly.

But the Lishma program changed their perceptions. Coming from Novosibirsk, where many Jews are not really religious and there’s no place for women to learn Torah, they were immersed for the first time in a vibrant, cohesive, egalitarian and observant Jewish community. They lived, prayed, studied and socialized with other Lishma students — from Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado and California — and staff. They also interacted on a daily basis with the Camp Ramah campers and administrators.

“What happens at camp is so magical and so beautiful. The question is, how do you recreate it?” asked Greyber, who is not actively recruiting foreign students for next summer’s Lishma program. He has, however, been invited to a conference in Lithuania to discuss a possible partnership between Camp Ramah and the Lithuanian Jewish community.

And for these young women, it’s not only the experience at camp but also the experience in America that is both magical and beautiful. And while they search for answers, concentrating on working and seeking to continue their Jewish studies, Novosibirsk remains deep in their hearts.

Anna Dramchuk, after establishing herself and earning enough money, hopes to return with her husband and help build something in the Jewish community, which lacks funds as well as knowledgeable and interested Jews.

“It’s my natural place,” she said.

And Olga Dramchuk dreams of creating a Lishma-like program in Los Angeles for young Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union to study and explore Jewish life. “I want them to be able to feel what I feel,” she said. “You never know what life will bring. Look how drastically our lives changed in this one year.”

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