Every summer, some 70 North American Jewish high-school student leaders are selected to participate at the camp as Szarvas Fellows, interacting with their peers from around the world. The program is coordinated by Rabbi Seth Braunstein, who accompanies the North American group.
Connecticut teens have participated as Szarvas Fellows since at least 2001. Last summer, Stamford residents Ariella Cohen and Sarah Marlowe were Fellows; this past summer, Rachel Fraade of Westport was selected for the program.
“Until I heard about Szarvas, it never occurred to me that there are many small Jewish communities that still exist in Eastern Europe,” says Cohen, 18, who is currently studying in Jerusalem. “What shocked me most was how different and yet so similar I was to my new friends from Albania, Slovakia, Hungary, and former Yugoslavia, to name a few. Whereas I came from a privileged home, a vibrant Jewish community, and one of the most powerful countries in the world, my friends came from backgrounds exactly opposite. But once we got past the cultural barriers, it was so blatantly obvious just how similar we were. Everyone was a proud Jew and supporter of Israel. I was also taken by surprise when I quickly became aware of how ignorant I am as an American, as my attitude toward the global political climate changed almost immediately.”
Fraade, a high-school senior, gained a new appreciation for Friday-night rituals. “As someone who takes lighting Shabbat candles for granted, it was incredibly moving to say the blessings along with girls who had never lit them before,” she says. “As I sang along to the prayers that I know by heart after years of Kabbalat Shabbat services, I sat next to teenagers attending their first religious service ever.”
“What I found most surprising was that many of the campers from Eastern Europe had very little to do with Judaism,” says Marlowe. “Many of them told us that they were jealous that we were able to celebrate Shabbat every weekend, for a lot of campers the only time they had a Shabbat experience was at Szarvas. What also really surprised me was that many of the kids were only half-Jewish, some only Jewish by their father’s side, and yet they wanted so much to connect to Judaism. I gained a serious appreciation for everything I have as well as more pride in being Jewish.”
For North American participants, Szarvas strengthens Jewish identity in ways different from their European counterparts. “I was very moved by how passionate my new friends were about being Jewish,” Cohen says. “Here I was, getting to go to a Jewish school, to synagogue every week, coming from a family that practices all of the traditions and rituals. I didn’t have to fight for things like that, because they were so easily given to me. My friends from Poland, Romania, and Albania, countries where there are 1,000, 400, or even 30 Jews, who have to go to such great efforts to lead somewhat Jewish lives, were my heroes for having such a passion for Judaism.”
Fraade says that Szarvas taught her how widespread the Jewish community is. “No matter where I am – Lithuania, Israel, Hungary, India – I now know that if there is a Jewish community, no matter how small, I am welcome,” she says. “No matter how different Jews may be in age, background, knowledge, or observance, we are still members of the same global community.”
For more information about the Szarvas Fellowships for North American Jewish teens: www.szarvas.org