Building Europe’s Jewish future at summer camp

Headlines show tough times for Europe's Jews: The Hungarian nationalist Jobbik party rallies against a cabal of "Jewish power.” From Paris to Malmo, Jews report fearing for their safety when wearing yarmulkes in public. Security details surround Jewish schools. But in the midst of this seeming storm, 100 miles from Budapest, more than 1,700 Jewish youth are gathering to openly celebrate Jewish life and traditions at a summer camp that is playing an extraordinary role in strengthening the continent's Jews.

It seems counterintuitive that such a place should exist, especially given the debate today about Europe’s Jewish future, particularly in a country that has become the flashpoint for those conversations. But as the director of the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas, a sleepy town in the Hungarian countryside, I get to witness the other side of the argument, where European Jewish life is brimming with possibility and young Jews are unabashedly proud of who they are and are eager to contribute to the rich tapestry of the European Jewish experience today.

And for me, this development is deeply personal.

I was born in Mukacheve—a city that is Ukrainian today, but was Hungarian in 1944 when the majority Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis. My grandparents survived, raised their family, and then left for Israel in the late 1980s to escape Soviet oppression. But my parents stayed behind, later moving my family west to Budapest in 1991.

For the first time I could be who I wanted, exploring my identity with others who were as curious and enthusiastic as I was to mine our “secret roots.”

Although I knew about my Jewish identity from my early childhood, I was discouraged from openly acknowledging it or talking about it because it was considered taboo under Communism.

When we moved to Hungary, the door to a more public identity opened: I went to Jewish school for the first time and became a member of a local youth organization. And then I discovered Szarvas.

This “Jewish Disneyland,” made up of only several dozen campers at its founding, was something I had never experienced. For the first time I could be who I wanted, exploring my identity with others who were as curious and enthusiastic as I was to mine our “secret roots.” More than that, it was fun! In between making challah (a traditional Jewish bread) and intoning the afternoon prayers that some were learning for the first time, we took a DJ’ing class, practiced playing the darbuka, or explored the woods.

Twenty-five years ago when Szarvas was created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, all of this was a very big deal and those twelve days every summer were an oasis. And I came back year after year, eventually becoming a counselor and getting more deeply involved in Jewish life back home.

This experience ­ the “Szarvas effect,” as we call it ­ has played out among many of the 20,000-plus alumni of the camp. After a generation of attending Szarvas, which has expanded to include a sports stadium, synagogue, and krav maga training course, many young people have gone on to become leaders and innovators in Europe’s Jewish communities and activists in the fight against hate throughout the continent.

Take Mina Pasajlic, a Serbian Jew who attended Szarvas and then went on to co-create Haver Serbia, an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and intolerance by educating people about Jews and Judaism.

"I simply didn't know I was Jewish -- it was never talked about at home, a topic my family always avoided," said Pasajlic. "But when I came to Szarvas, I was able to truly explore and take ownership of that identity. It has made me who I am today and influences my work, particularly important to me today given my grandmother's experience as a Holocaust survivor."

And she is not alone: Maya Cimesa from Croatia ­ with an estimated Jewish population of only 1,500 people ­ took her Szarvas experience and founded her country’s first Jewish elementary school since the Second World War. She credits the camp for her passion and for knowing, “at age 12, that I wanted to work with the Jewish community.”

Agata Rakowiecka, a former camper and counselor, is the director of Warsaw’s newly opened modern Jewish Community Center, which has quickly become a staple of Jewish life in the Polish capital, and György Forgács, a Hungarian native, has expanded the Szarvas network to include family programming, running our sold-out, year-round events for mostly Hungarian Jewish families eager for a taste of Jewish life.

These achievements, and Szarvas’ enduring presence, are part of the miraculous rebuilding of Jewish life across Europe in the long shadow of Nazism and Communism. What makes it all the more remarkable are the current challenges we Jews in Europe face, from rising anti-Semitic sentiment, to terrorism, to economic decline. And yet, the majority of European Jews, including myself, plan to stay.

And as a result, the confident Jewish environment, leadership skills, and life lessons that Szarvas provides is in great demand—so much so that we added a fourth session of the camp this summer, including youth from 30 countries! Among them, Moldova and Ukraine, both with Jewish populations facing critical challenges like extreme poverty and ongoing conflict.

During a moment of break time this week, I had a quiet moment with Fanni Abonyi, a 16-year-old from Budapest who has become a familiar face. Fanni has been coming here since she was 9, together with classmates and friends.

“You know I always fix the date in my calendar for camp and cannot wait to get the dates for the next summer,” she told me, smiling. “After Szarvas, for a few months anyway, I try to keep the camp schedule, praying after meals and things like that. When I grow up, I’ve decided to become a counselor here.”

Looking into her eyes, I saw myself, a hesitant but determined young person excited to embrace my Jewish self, do something to improve the world, and carry forward a legacy that almost wasn’t.

Sometimes history repeats itself, for the better.