By Diego Ornique
For Europe’s Jewish communities, facing rising anti-Semitism and economic decline, the last three decades of achievement in rebuilding Jewish life could be easily forgotten. But in rural Hungary, more than 1,300 young Jews from twenty plus countries are enthusiastically exploring Jewish culture, customs, and history all while playing sports, gathering around bonfires, and raiding the canteen for candy and ice cream. This seeming oasis – business as usual during the 25th anniversary summer session of the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas – stands in the face of those who doubt a Jewish future in Europe.
So what is it about the Szarvas experience that is emblematic of the revival of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe, especially after the decimation of the Holocaust and Communism? And why do so many of the more than 25,000 alumni of Szarvas come back, again and again?
Szarvas is more than a summer camp, it is a meeting ground for an emerging generation of Jews who are boldly and confidently embracing their Jewish identity. This summer alone, booked to capacity, the camp is not only home to the usual cohorts from Europe, the U.S., and Israel, but a sizeable contingent from Ukraine and Russia. Add to that the experience run for Shoah survivors and the volunteer groups who also attend and participate in the camp, and you have many paths to Jewish engagement. Paths and results that go far beyond the expectations of the camp’s original founders, including the visionary and path-breaking Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
One of the most outstanding examples of this is what I like to call “the Szarvas leadership effect.” For many young Jews who have attended Szarvas, a fire has been lit within them, and this summer retreat has been transformed into a leadership incubator. Look around Eastern Europe today and you will find Szarvas alum leading communities and grassroots Jewish organizations.
In Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, leaders like Alexander Oscar, Ubul Forgacs, and Luciana Friedman (the first woman to lead the Jewish community in Timisoara), are confronting head-on what it means to be a Jewish leader in Europe, aided by the toolkit they developed at Szarvas. In fact, the experience and knowledge gained at Szarvas has also created a growing group of young Jewish professionals, a major accomplishment in societies that often eschewed philanthropy, and social entrepreneurs, full of creativity and desire to test boundaries, shaping the European Jewish cultural and the communal scene.
So much so that Szarvas graduates are responsible for the creation of Jewish camps in Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, and Bulgaria. They have also been behind the establishment of Limmud in many locations in Eastern Europe and the development of congregations across Europe as a number of our former campers became Rabbis after their summer experiences here.
But perhaps, above all, the most miraculous impact of Szarvas has been its uncanny ability to engender the family-wide embrace of Jewish identity and the development of a new Yiddishkeit. For so many of the thousands of Jewish participants who come from what we call “unaffiliated” or “assimilated” backgrounds, Szarvas plays a vital role in building Jewish identity and a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
Why is this particularly relevant in Europe?
Under Hungary’s Communist regime, for example, religious engagement of any kind was reduced drastically or eroded. The same happened in the rest of Eastern Europe as well. This phenomenon produced a “missing generation” of people who were unfamiliar with Jewish life and, in many cases, were completely unaware of their Jewish background or alienated from it.
Compounding this was the fact that when a number of Jewish organizations came back to help rebuild Jewish communities after the fall of Communism, they focused disproportionately on rebuilding Jewish institutions. Other central aspect of Jewish life such as family practice, rituals, and congregational activities, seemed to fall to the wayside.
Szarvas has been a corrective to this and has played a transformative role addressing this challenge. Because the camp’s experience is so compelling in terms of Jewish learning, rituals and community engagement, it has naturally triggered in many of the campers and, often in their parents, a new desire to bring Judaism is back home after difficult decades of persecution and disruptive Jewish continuity. They go home and the family begins to follow the lead of the children, lighting Shabbat candles, reading Jewish books, and celebrating Jewish holidays at home, an act unthinkable in the past.
All of this, of course, begs the question – in a Europe that seems so fractured and imbued with anti-Jewish feeling, is Szarvas, and experiences like it, enough for a future?
I believe that the ultimate goal of these experiences in not just to foster strong Jewish communities and proud Jewish leaders, but also to develop in Europe a unique and vibrant Jewish culture that sustains all paths to engagement today and twenty years from now. The etymology of the word “culture”, after all, comes from the ancient Greek word for “work.” Hence, agriculture, means work of the land.
So today, by extension, I believe we need a Jewish culture that draws from the past centuries of European Jewish “work”- from the times of the Rambam to the Vilna Gaon to the emergence of the Zionism – that is also reflective of the realities of Jewish life in the now.
This is critically important because while a minority of our campers will end up making aliyah or become religiously observant, most of our campers will travel on a path marked by a cultural approach to Judaism and Jewish identity.
These European Jews, and their families, will not follow the path of their ancestors, nor embrace religious or Israeli identities (though they will maintain strong ties to Israel). So it’s imperative that we have Jewish scholars and educators, filmmakers and artists, journalists and commentators, and yes, also Jewish rabble-rousers. You can see this taking shape, whether in the Jewish fashion line of Antonina Samecka in Warsaw, the Golem Jewish theater of András Borgula in Budapest, or in the magnetic Jewish teen engagement work of Nikolay Railean in Kishinev.
At Szarvas, we have plenty of these Jewish leaders in-the-making. The future is theirs to shape, and ours to support.
Diego Ornique is the Europe Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
photos courtesy Szarvas Int’l Jewish Youth Camp