Two local summer camps have each pledged to provide 10 spots for children from the embattled Israeli city of Sderot, prompting a massive fundraising campaign from within Boston’s Russian-Jewish community.

In response to an appeal earlier this year from Cornell University junior Masha Rifkin of Newton, Jews throughout the Greater Boston area have rallied around the effort to fund the children’s voyage, surpassing organizers’ expectations and heightening their hopes.

While studying abroad this semester at Tel Aviv University, Masha, 20, was horrified to learn that the citizens of Sderot have been living for years under the constant threat of “Kassams” – free-flight artillery rockets – and that the city’s children are growing up in a culture of fear.

“It’s heartbreaking there,” said Rifkin, speaking to the Advocate from Israel. “People are walking around like they’ve just given up.” Masha, who immigrated with her family to the U.S. from the Former Soviet Union when she was only a year old, felt a particular connection to the 40 percent of Sderot citizens who are of Russian Jewish descent.

When she called home with her concerns, her mother, Inessa, quickly offered the 10 remaining spots at Camp Sunapee in New Hampshire, the summertime affiliate of the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton, of which Inessa is co-founder.

“We felt it was a wonderful opportunity to return some of the blessings we’ve been given since coming here from the Soviet Union,” said Inessa, a Newton resident. As word spread within the local Russian-Jewish community, Rabbi Dan Rodkin of Shaloh House in Brighton was quick to follow suit, donating 10 places at Summer Camp Gan Israel.

“I really believe that we are one nation,” said Rodkin, who closely follows reports from Sderot. “The least we can do is give those kids one month of worry-free time when they can enjoy summer, and maybe our kids can learn from them how to love Israel.”

Meanwhile, Masha had created a plan for the trip with Noam Bedein, founder of the Sderot Media Center, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the situation in Sderot.

The primary purpose of the trip will be to provide the children with a respite from the daily life of Sderot, she said. Beyond that, 10 religiously observant children will attend Summer Camp Gan Israel, a day camp, and will spend time together with counselors in a dormitory setting overnight. Ten Russian-speaking children will attend Camp Sunapee, where they will rehearse and perform in Russian – with English subtitles – a play that Masha and Bedein have co-written based on the children’s experiences in Sderot.

“Nothing is as powerful as hearing about it from a child who grew up with it,” said Masha.

With the camp tuition waived, the trip is expected to cost approximately $1,800 – $300 in legal paperwork and $1,500 for airfare – per child, bringing the target total to $36,000, according to Inessa.

Between a public service announcement placed in the Jewish Russian Telegraph and a common interest group on, news of the need for funds spread rapidly.

“The reaction was overwhelming,” said Inessa. “I received checks for $10 and checks for $5,000.”

Dr. Mila Magitsky, treasurer for the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, which is playing a key role in the fundraising effort, reported that the past week has seen $7-8,000 in donations, bringing the grand total to just shy of their goal. “I want tell Inessa that we’re doing well, but I don’t want people to feel that just because they already gave that it’s enough,” she said. Another $12,000 has been pledged, she added, and she expects to see the checks soon.

Bedein said, “The way this was brought together is just unbelievable. This is my first time working with a Russian-Jewish community, and it’s an incredible project.”

Russian Jews are particularly passionate about Israel because of their experiences in the former Soviet Union, according to Magitsky. She added: “We never felt at home in Russia. Israel looked to us like a homeland.”

The prospect of surplus funds is now allowing the organizers to think more broadly: Masha and Bedein may be able to implement their plan to take the children’s play on tour to New York and Los Angeles.

Of the $12,000 recently promised, $5,000 has been pledged by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Magitsky reported on Tuesday. She added that the potential donation “is wonderful because CJP is an American organization.”

Regarding the donation’s pending status, CJP Senior Planning Associate Irene Belozersky said, “We need to look at the available funds, but we would love to be able to make this donation. We think it’s a valuable grassroots initiative from the Russian community, and CJP is always looking for ways to nurture and support Israel-related action within the community.”

This piece ran in the May 10th, 2007 issue of the Jewish Advocate in Boston, Mass.