Szarvas Camp was established in 1990 after the fall of Communism. The camp was founded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an organization committed to reviving Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. Being such, the camp’s intention was – and still is – to revive European Jewry after the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust.
What was once a vision of rebirth has quickly become a symbol of European Jewry, especially Hungarian Jewry. More than 20 countries are represented by Szarvas’ 1,500 campers. By and large, Szarvas serves campers with little to no Jewish knowledge and, for many of those campers, Szarvas Camp is the first Jewish experience of their lives.
Szarvas Camp’s goals are to make its campers feel like they are a part of a community, to allow its campers to open themselves to the world and to Judaism and to learn Jewish traditions. But when I first heard of Szarvas, these goals all seemed unattainable.
In many ways, the concept of a Jewish camp in Hungary is outrageous. Jobbik, a radical political party with anti-Semitic beliefs, is the second-largest political group in the nation. More and more European Jews fear for their safety and tourists are often discouraged from wearing yarmulkes in certain areas, just as my delegation was while walking around Budapest.
Jewish schools are increasing their security as the fear of defamation rises. The simple fact is that there is an unrest in the Jewish communities in Europe. But, despite all this, Szarvas and its campers are thriving. Szarvas Camp is a Jewish oasis in the midst of uncertainty. Children who had no connection to Judaism before attending Szarvas are given a community, a new family, and Jewish values and traditions become deeply ingrained in their minds. Szarvas is a dream come to life. In many ways, Szarvas has not only reached its goals, it has surpassed them. With alumnae such as Agata Rakowiecka, who founded Warsaw’s JCC and Mina Pasajlic, who founded Haver Serbia, an organization which seeks to fight anti-Semitism through education on Judaism, Szarvas has created a new generation of young, dedicated Jews in Europe. And it has no intention of stopping.
The approach to Jewish learning at Szarvas doesn’t start and end with prayers. Szarvas deeply believes in spirituality first. It is not uncommon to find a group of campers singing with a madrich at all hours of the day. Children learn words to Jewish songs in Hebrew, bridging the language barrier with the language of the Jewish homeland. Szarvas is also very committed to teaching campers about chesed, tzedakah, and gmilut chasadim. We celebrated erev Hadas during which each group made a skit for a camp-wide play on kindness along with posters and fliers to raise awareness for an organization they feel strongly about. These activities don’t just teach campers about Judaism, they strengthen connections to it. At Szarvas, we are taught to think critically about our own values, to question what we’ve always known, to try to understand ourselves better.
Through understanding and knowing our own Judaism more deeply, we also come to understand and know ourselves better. Szarvas Camp helps us to strengthen our own knowledge about the world and people around us, the Jewish practices we have, and about our own journey through the world.
I had always learned that Eastern and Central Europe was a graveyard of Judaism. I grew up with stories of the Holocaust all around me, and the message was that there would be no recovery whatsoever. So, when I read through the goals of the camp and researched the program, I wasn’t expecting much. I expected Jewishly illiterate campers around me, I expected that my American delegation would be the only group who really knew what Judaism was.
I had become something of an elitist with my background of going to a Jewish school for 12 years, learning Hebrew, attending Jewish summer camps and praying regularly. I genuinely thought that I was far more learned than my international peers and that my job as an American fellow would be to attempt to help others find their Judaism.
My education had catapulted me into believing that I, the Westerner, would be tasked with teaching those around me about things I had learned in kindergarten. But my first moments at Szarvas Camp proved me wrong. As I danced and sang to Jewish music with my peers from all across Europe, I realized that I would not be teaching Szarvas, Szarvas would be teaching me.
Hadas Galilli of Pepper Pike is a senior at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.