Feature Stories

Jewish Renewal… Hungarian Style: Westport-area Federation helps strengthen European Jewish life

Jewish Ledger | 12-2-11

By Cindy Mindell ~

Jewish camping is often held up as one of the keys to strong Jewish identity and involvement. Apply the statistics to the small Jewish communities throughout Europe, and the significance of Jewish camping mushrooms: there, it is the key to Jewish revival.
Every summer since 1991, 1,500 Jewish children and teens from some 25 countries around the world attend the world’s largest international Jewish summer camp, created by a partnership between the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), in Szarvas, Hungary.

The campers learn about Jewish culture

The campers learn about Jewish culture and explore Jewish concepts like Shabbat and Jewish holidays through arts and crafts, games, singing and dancing, and team-building activities. For many participants, it is their first introduction to Judaism and the only time they get to interact with other Jewish youth.
In 1990, Europe was evolving rapidly. “The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and things were changing all over Europe and the Former Soviet Union [FSU], and the JDC had to look at its mission,” says Jerry Spitzer of Weston. Spitzer was JDC’s director of operations from 1978 to 1984, and a board member and volunteer ever since.
“After 50 years of clandestine Judaism, what would the JDC do now that people were relatively free to deal with their Jewishness, or at least free to open up their minds and lives to Jewish renewal?” says Spitzer, who became chair of JDC’s Europe Area Committee. As one of its many concentrations, the organization turned special attention to youth, seeking new ways to connect young Jewish populations throughout Eastern Europe and the FSU.
The answer: a centrally located summer camp that could draw kids from all over.
JDC approached the Lauder Foundation, which purchased an abandoned campground near the Hungarian town of Szarvas and gave the JDC a 99-year contract to operate the property as a partner, charging one dollar a year in rent. The foundation spruced up the property, adding a swimming pool, dining hall, and cabins. The JDC hired a director from Israel. In July 1991, the international Jewish summer camp opened the first of four two-week sessions.

A camper reads from the Torah

Families paid what they could and the Lauder Foundation and other donors covered the rest, a policy that continues today. For many campers, Szarvas provided an introduction to Judaism and the first place they could safely start to explore their own Jewish identity.
“Szarvas is really about building Jewish renewal in as intense a fashion as possible in a couple of weeks so that when each youngster goes home, he or she is a shaliach [emissary] to other Jewish kids in the community and to their own parents,” Spitzer says.
During the first decade, Szarvas campers were mostly from Eastern Europe and Israel. Then recruitment widened and kids started coming from Western Europe, India, Turkey, and North America. Each group of campers is accompanied by two counselors from their home country who lead activities in their native language; during all-camp activities, the common language is Hebrew.
Many campers become counselors and then take on larger roles. “As I look at Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe, almost every Jewish leader, professional and lay, is a graduate of Szarvas,” Spitzer says. “It’s kind of the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Jewish leadership in Eastern Europe and the FSU.”


The Jewish camping experience really plays a vital role in establishing Jewish identity

A Connecticut Connection
Because of its location, most of Szarvas’s campers are Hungarian, among them the Bowman sisters, Noemi, 13, and Emily, 11, who live in Budapest.
The Bowman family provides a unique window to the experience of Jewish life in Hungary.
Adam Bowman, a Fairfield native, met his Budapest-born wife, Nora, on Kibbutz Yagur in 1992. They married in 1994 and moved to Washington, D.C. where their daughters, Noemi and Emily, were born. The Bowmans returned to Budapest in 2002 to be closer to Nora’s family.
When Adam and Nora announced plans to move to Fairfield this year, the girls only agreed to leave after their session at Szarvas. The two, who attend the Schreiber Sandor Foundation School, the largest of five Jewish dayschools in Budapest, were introduced to the summer camp last year, where the majority of campers are Hungarian.
“You like the people you’re with and everybody is nice and open to everybody else,” says Emily, 11. “There’s no pressure from school, so everybody feels relaxed.”
For the girls, the Shabbat celebrated at Szarvas is “awesome.” After Friday lunch, campers begin to prepare, cleaning their cabin and putting on nice clothes. Everyone writes wishes on balloons, all released into the sky at the same time.

For many participants, it is their first introduction to Judaism and the only time they get to interact with other Jewish youth.

While Budapest is home to some 20 synagogues, and there are a few cafés and restaurants known as Jewish hang-outs, not all Jews feel comfortable being open about their identity in public. “Within our four walls, we are who we are and we celebrate Jewish holidays,” Nora says. “Here, we can talk about Jewish camp, but not in Budapest,” Noemi says.
“In the general population in Hungary, some Jews feel that they need to be more discreet,” says Adam. “It’s no secret to anybody that Jewish culture has been a strong part of Hungarian culture for centuries and that there was and still is a Jewish community in Budapest, but it’s also no secret that antisemitism still exists. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, it’s not an issue. Can we be proud and not ashamed of who we are in a society where there may be danger? How should we define ourselves? By the Holocaust or by other experiences? That’s the part we have control over. There is a big Jewish community still, and Jewish organizations like Szarvas and the youth groups HaNoar HaTzioni and HaShomer HaTzair are keeping Judaism alive and making it fun, so that a new generation of Jews want to belong to the Jewish community.”

Connecticut lends a hand
As Jewish populations slowly increase throughout Europe, Szarvas is inspiring the creation of local summer camps, some staffed by Szarvas graduates, and all supported by JDC’s country directors and local staff-training programs.
But demand is still high at Szarvas, and financial support can’t keep up with the increasing number of campers who want to attend.
In response, UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk has designated Szarvas as a guided-giving objective.
“We’re very much aware of the importance that Jewish camps and camping plays in developing Jewish identity and leadership in the States,” says executive director Steven M. Friedlander. “It’s universally acknowledged that the total immersion provided by the Jewish camping experience here, regardless of denomination, results in a direct correlation with greater bonding and identification as Jews, and also enhances self-esteem.”
Unless children attend Jewish dayschool, Friedlander says, they are bombarded by multiple experiences and demands on their time that make it difficult for them to develop that intense feeling about their Jewishness and what role it plays in their lives.

Camp Szarvas offers a Jewish experience through arts and crafts, games, singing and dancing, and team-building activities

“So the Jewish camping experience really plays a vital role in establishing Jewish identity in a very deep way, because it’s not an experience of isolation, but rather of communal living, that hopefully becomes a model for kids as they grow up,” he says.
As an outcome of that observation, UJA/Federation has long held an equity stake and proprietary interest in Jewish camping, Friedlander says. The organization allocates funds to Camp Gan Israel of Westport, and to Jewish Family Service to support its Ben and Joan Zinbarg-Jewish Family Service Summer Camp Scholarship Fund. Both provide scholarships to families who want to send their kids to a Jewish camp and might not otherwise be able to do so. UJA/Federation also supports the Reform and Masorti summer-camp movements in Israel.
The organization has been involved for many years with JDC’s work in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Friedlander and his leadership first learned about Szarvas at the JDC’s Ambassadors Circle global forum last December, during a presentation by Zoya Shvartzman, director of strategic partnerships for JDC Europe.
“With a greater understanding of the important role Jewish camps play in developing Jewish life and leadership, we came into this scenario already predisposed to the involvement in and appreciation of the Jewish camping movement,” Friedlander says. “You multiply that when you consider Szarvas, which serves a post-Holocaust population that is trying in some way to reestablish Jewish life in Eastern Europe.”
Subsequently, UJA/Federation board members and lay leaders participated in JDC missions to Eastern Europe.
Szarvas was the focus of UJA/Federation’s annual Lion of Judah-Pomegranate women’s philanthropy event in November, and will be highlighted at the organization’s annual March event. UJA/Federation is raising money for scholarships in the hopes that more children will be able to attend Szarvas, and that the camp will be able to restore a fourth session, cut because of a budgetary shortfall.
In addition, UJA/Federation is planning a summer 2012 mission to Hungary and the nearby region, in conjunction with JDC. “We believe firmly that it’s through in-person experience on the ground that one develops a full appreciation of needs and opportunities,” Friedlander says. The mission will, of course, include a visit to Szarvas.

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