European Jewish summer camp is building the future, now  

In Short

The creativity, perseverance, and desire of young Jewish leaders in communities throughout Europe to make meaningful camp experiences during this time is a testament to the lasting effects positive Jewish experiences can have on a kid

August in Europe. Children and young adults can be found running in the woods, laughing and gossiping at a communal meal, and playing soccer on open fields. Intertwined with these activities are Shabbat melodies, Jewish history lessons and family tales of Jewish identities rediscovered or passed on to a new and willing generation.  

No, this bucolic scene was not from two summers ago, but has happened, or will, this month in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltics. Local Jewish summer camps and Shabbat camping experiences in Europe are back, overflowing with enthusiasm and joy. All of this took place on a continent still grappling with COVID-19, slow vaccination rollouts, and against a backdrop that many portend is not hospitable to a Jewish future.  

And yet, Jewish life found a way and Jewish camping remains a pipeline to that future.  

I should know—I myself started the formative parts of my Jewish journey as a Jewish camper. And today I lead Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp, and one of Europe’s leading incubators for Jewish identity and leadership. With more than 25,000 alumni and a usual roster of 1,600 kids from more than 30 countries attending each summer, I understand intimately the importance of camping to many facets of Jewish life and leadership.  

Sadly for the second summer, we had to forgo this globalized experience because of pandemic risks. But that did not stop our work or efforts to collaborate with local Jewish communities around Europe to hold fast to Jewish camping and make it happen in safe ways. 

One could not erase the current circumstances they face: rolling lockdowns, unemployment and growing social need, and loss of touchpoints for human interaction. Children especially have been yearning for socialization. And with Jewish communities forced to move programming online, and antisemitism rising in the region, the need for Jewish gathering and pride has become even more essential. 

So how was this achieved? Over the last year, and especially in the months leading up to local camping experiences, I was in dialogue with many of these camps and visited them to understand what type of programming they were or wanted to run, what I could learn from them and vice-versa, and how we could work together to forge a collective future and legions of proud Jews to build it.  

What I have seen has been inspiring and provides valuable insights for global Jewish communities trying to keep Jewish life thriving at a time of ZOOM fatigue and in-person High Holiday plans upended by the Delta variant. Two are top of mind.  

First and foremost, the creativity, perseverance, and desire of young Jewish leaders in communities throughout Europe to make meaningful camp experiences during this time is a testament to the lasting effects positive Jewish experiences can have on a kid. Most of these local camp leaders, I am proud to say, went through the Szarvas lifecycle, from being a camper or participant to their current roles. They have also been impacted by educational, cultural, and religious programming in their local communities. Today, these leaders serve as the embodiment of what happens when we empower people, specifically young people, and give them the right settings and inspiration to proudly embrace their Jewish identities.  

At the height of the current health crisis in Europe, they were leading volunteer initiatives to deliver food and medicine to elderly and poor Jews in lockdown. They last created and led online Jewish initiatives adapted for the pandemic. And, in the last year, they eagerly attended educational and training seminars that boosted their knowledge, honed their leadership skills, and sustained their involvement with Jewish camping. 

These included programs we did for our counselors and unit heads throughout Europe and the work of Yesod Europe — the European Jewish community professionals and educators training platform, a partnership JDC, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe — that ran several gatherings targeting the educational and leadership teams of the different European Jewish summer camps, including those from Sweden and Italy. 

At a moment when it was needed most, these leaders drew from these trainings, consultation and financial support from JDC, as well as years of exposure to other positive Jewish touchpoints, to create engaging and enlightening camping programs ensuring children don’t lose another summer. 

Second, these camps demonstrate the continued blossoming of self-sustaining Jewish communities. Many of these communities came out from under the thumb of communism just a few decades ago, rebuilding Jewish life from the ground up. In the interim they have dealt with political and social changes and economic challenges. And yet, thirty years later, thanks to investment in these communities and their passionate dedication, they are their own futures – developing and running their own camps, community centers, schools, and synagogues. The leadership cohorts of these communities often draw from local camping programs or from Szarvas. They have assumed positions where they are charting the next decades of Jewish life in Europe.  

They do so as confident Jews invested in Jewish life that is pluralistic, inclusive, and focused on sustainability. They also understand their role in wider European society. They work to battle antisemtism and other forms of hate and have been creating grassroots initiatives to address humanitarian needs from refugee assistance to aiding people with disabilities. This full expression of their Jewish identity and leadership potential is an inspiration to those now currently growing up in the communities they fashion and around the campfires this past summer. They will guide these young people on their Jewish journey and demonstrate to them that Jewish life is possible even under circumstances we never imagined.  

Upon my return to Budapest after a recent trip to a local camp, I drove out to Szarvas, about an hour from the capitol. We have used the pandemic as an opportunity to engage in a $13 million renovation, to be completed for our return next summer and made possible by a group of generous philanthropists dedicated to our vision for Jewish life and leadership. 

As I considered what would be, old structures reimagined and rebuilt for new realities, I was reminded of the campers, counselors, and educators I met in local Jewish camps around Europe. In every activity they engaged in, in every lesson learned, I saw the Jewish can-do spirit personified and fashioned with new potential. If that’s not a Jewish future to be proud of, I don’t know what is.  

Sasha Friedman is the director of Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp.