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Investing in a bright Jewish future is key to Jewish Federation’s mission. While the Pew study of 2013, pointing to fewer Americans engaging in Jewish life, sent shock waves through the U.S., rekindling Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe has been happening for more than 20 years.
One initiative engaging new generations of Jews is Camp Szarvas, located outside Budapest, Hungary. The camp was created by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1990, and is supported by the American Joint Distribution Committee and local Jewish Federations throughout North American – including ours. As part of Jewish Federation of Monmouth’s sister city relationship with the Jewish community of Budapest, and through the special focus of Jewish Federation of Monmouth’s Vanguard Society, Federation provides scholarships to attend Camp Szarvas.
The rationale behind Camp Szarvas, according to the Lauder Foundation, is this: Thousands of Jewish children live in towns throughout Central and Eastern Europe where there are no synagogues nearby, no Jewish schools, and no other Jewish families. Others live in cities where outward expressions of Judaism can subject them to acts of anti-Semitism. Half a century of Fascism, Holocaust and Communism nearly wiped out Jewish life in the region.
“Camp Szarvas provides a place where children and teens discover, celebrate, and develop pride in their Jewish identity,” says Zsuzsa Fritz, who is Education Director at the camp and also Director of the Balint JCC in Budapest, which is recognized as a focal point for the resurgence of Jewish life there. “Szarvas campers learn about Jewish holidays, customs, and songs; they learn the Hebrew language; they make Jewish friends; and most of all they learn that they are part of a world-wide Jewish community that cares about them.”
Like many others growing up in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s, Zsuzsa did not know she was Jewish as a young child. Her family sought to protect her – concerned that she would not be able to advance in Communist Hungary if she were openly Jewish. They did not discuss being Jewish; there were no elements of Jewish life in her childhood home.
Then at age 16, Zsuzsa’s father died and at his funeral, conducted with Jewish traditions, she learned the truth. After the initial shock, Zsuzsa was interested in going to events at the local rabbinic college, which by that time toward the end of Communism, was becoming more involved with the general public. She was fascinated by all things Jewish, and as time progressed, Zsuzsa pursued her passion and a career in informal Jewish education.
Today, through her work with the JCC and Camp Szarvas, Zsusza has helped tens of thousands of children from all over the world embrace their Jewish identity.
Many Szarvas campers who attended as children returned for many summers. They eventually became counselors at the camp and then leaders in their respective home communities, instilling in others an appreciation and love of Judaism. Many in the Jewish communal world credit Camp Szarvas with influencing much of the leadership who have helped revitalize Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Today, campers hail from more than 25 countries, including the U.S., Israel, and even India. The camp hosts about 1,500 children per summer, ages 8 to 18, in four 12-day sessions. The program is usually translated into four or five languages at a time.
“For many children, Szarvas is their first real encounter with Jewish traditions,” Zsuzsa added. “They gather to sing around camp fires, play sports, do arts and crafts, and put on skits, all geared around Jewish themes. They even celebrate joint Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”
Lunchtime at Camp Szarvas is known to be particularly joyful. Crammed into the cavernous dining hall strung with all the campers’ national flags, the kids immediately launch into competing chants. The revelry continues even after the dishes are cleared. Birthdays are celebrated; dancing breaks out.
Each summer, approximately 70 North American teens attend Camp Szarvas. Alan, who was there at age 17, called it a life-changing experience. He wrote about it on the camp’s alumni blog, excerpted here:
The dispersed from the four corners of the earth are all gathered. Everyone lives in perfect peace and harmony. Am I talking about the coming of the Messiah? No. I’m talking about a summer camp. But not any camp, this camp is so unique that a comparison to the former is, I think, justified. I’m not a heretic – really. But there is no other way that I can think to express the magical, unique and even sometimes holy feeling one feels while walking around this utopia of a camp in the middle of the Hungarian countryside. I’ve been to sleep away camp and various summer programs, but no experience has even come remotely close to the impact this past summer has had on me.
This camp is more than a camp but a place that builds Jewish identity and bursts with Jewish pride. During the session I attended, there were American Jews, Canadian Jews, Israeli Jews, British Jews, Irish Jews, Dutch Jews, French Jews, Polish Jews, Romanian Jews, Hungarian Jews and Russian Jews. I made new friends from around the world. We discussed each other’s cultures, views and day-to-day lives. For some, Judaism was foreign, with Szarvas being their only connection with it.
There was diversity even among the American group. Some came from yeshivas, while others had never set foot in a Jewish school. Some considered themselves atheists, while others were shomer shabbos. In two short weeks, we forged such deep relationships with people that were once strangers that some in the group decided to share parts of their life they never shared with anyone else.
We came to understand that despite our small differences we are truly all just one people. I felt this especially when the whole camp wholeheartedly participated in shira. We all had our arms around each other’s shoulders and we were huddled in a circle. Next to me was one of my Russian friends and on the other side was a ‘reform’ friend of mine from Tampa. But we all sang together at the top of our lungs “Shalom, Shalom… Yavo Shalom Al Yisrael”. That is an image that is indelibly imprinted on my being.
The fact that I was back in the same country where my grandmother and her family were persecuted some mere sixty odd years ago, and now I am brimming with Jewish pride and singing and dancing was a deeply emotional and meaningful experience. At the same time, as deep and intense as conversations often became, there was a streak of unpredictable craziness that ran through the camp that ensured that no one took himself or herself too seriously. One minute you might be discussing whether there can be morality without religion while the next minute a crazy European techno dance party emerges.
At camp no one had any inhibitions, everyone felt comfortable being themselves. Szarvas inspired pride in being Jewish as well as pride in simply being who you are. This was an experience I will always treasure.
Annie, another American, wrote in her post, excerpted here:
My Szarvas adventure began when the Americans spent two days in Budapest, sharing our families’ stories with each other and creating memories. We spent Shabbat at local synagogues and we walked to the Danube River where we saw shoes lined-up in a memorial to the Jews who were killed there. This was my first flavor of Jewish life in Eastern Europe; in America, I am not sought after because of my religion, but in Hungary wearing a yarmulke while walking down a street can gain someone angry glares.
After two days in Budapest, we went to Camp Szarvas. In my first hours there, I met kids from Slovakia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, Czech Republic, and Serbia. That night, the whole camp gathered for opening ceremonies and Israeli dancing. Four hundred kids from around the world sharing this was incredible.
I also liked the “Mifgashim,” where we met with different age groups from different countries and learned about each other’s cultures. What made my Szarvas experience click for me though, was the day we toured a gorgeous old synagogue in the town of Szeged. In the synagogue were two walls with names of Jews from Szeged who were taken from their homes during World War II. Our leader told us about an American girl who attended Szarvas the previous session who found her grandmother’s name on the wall. All of a sudden, I understood… All the campers at Szarvas had similar roots, but our lives led in different paths. Like several of the American teenagers at Szarvas, my grandfather hails from Eastern Europe. Several Israeli campers’ families moved from Eastern Europe to Israel. The majority of Eastern European campers had ancestry in Eastern Europe who fought to stay alive during the Holocaust. I truly felt what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.
While stargazing with friends one night at camp, I realized each member of the global Jewish community is like a star in the sky. We each shine in our own way, but together we have the power to light the world. For that realization and so much more, I am forever grateful to Camp Szarvas.