A little more than 20 years ago, I was part of the Former Soviet Union Team of
the Malben-JDC that helped send the first children to the Ronald S. Lauder
Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary. This summer, I was
privileged to visit Szarvas for the first time, as an educational volunteer from
Israel. I returned with a refined understanding of the Eastern European Diaspora
and many questions about Israel’s role in and responsibility for the destiny of
these nascent Jewish communities.
Camp Szarvas is a magical place – an
oasis of Jewish joy and learning, for children raised mostly in areas of Eastern
Europe and the FSU that once brimmed with Jewish life. Over 25,000 young people
have attended Szarvas since its founding in 1990, and many of them literally
grew up there – evolving from campers to madrichim (counselors), unit heads and
specialty staff. Szarvas’s director and senior staff – who are mostly Eastern
European and, as such, a JDC success story – have created an inspiring
environment which brings out the best in both campers and staff, and is infusing
Jewish life into tiny communities across the globe.
My inspiration to
volunteer this summer came from Israeli graduates of Szarvas – Russian-speakers
in their 20s and 30s who made aliya over the past 10 to 15 years. Leonid, a
neurologist from Uzhgorod, Ukraine, who now lives in Tel Aviv, attended the camp
for seven years, from age 10 to 16, and attributes “his entire Jewish identity”
One mention of Szarvas on my Facebook page drew similar
reactions from Volodya (Jerusalem), Marie (Ramat Gan), Alex (Ashdod) and many
other Russian-speaking Israeli young professionals, with whom I am in contact
through my national leadership nonprofit.
For most, Szarvas was their
first contact with vibrant Jewish life, and inspired them to become more
Jewishly involved in their home communities.
Ultimately their Szarvas
experience impacted their decisions to move to Israel.
conversations after arriving in Szarvas were with the younger counterparts of my
Russian oleh friends – who have different aspirations in the meantime. I met
Slavyan from Bulgaria, a dynamic young leader at the forefront of Jewish renewal
in Sofia, who has just opened his own business; Hana, an observant musician from
the Czech Republic; Bea and Liana, two students from Romania; and Yosefa, a
biomedical engineering student in India. They have each spent many summers in
All plan on staying in their home countries to study and work
and help build their local Jewish communities, undeterred by anti-Semitism,
economic instability, political corruption and other familiar local ills that
they speak about with classic Jewish sighs and humor.
They are smart,
idealistic and inspiring, and I hope to stay in close contact with
But these encounters also caused me a bit of ideological
My natural inclination is to hope that many of these wonderful
young leaders will follow the path of my Russian- speaking friends who moved to
Because really, with more than half the world’s Jewish population
living in the homeland for the first time in 3,000 years, should we be rapping
today about Wandering Jews? Jewish history continues to spiral upward and
forward, and Israel is the hub and catalyst of this process.
If only for
their personal joy and fulfillment, Israel should be their natural
On the other hand, we cannot know the unique role of every
Jew in this period of Jewish history. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote about the
defining task of this generation: to reconnect the most far-flung “sparks” of
the Jewish nation.
He emphasized that contrary to previous generations,
there is a readiness among the most distant Jews to search for their roots and
live Jewishly again.
The young madrichim who are trained in Szarvas
emerge more prepared to inspire others and attract those “sparks.”
some are destined to remain in the Diaspora and succeed in their goals, my
Szarvas experience clarified for me that these young people need to deepen their
connection with Israel, and Israel needs to reach out actively to these
communities. My friends from Bulgaria and Romania mentioned how hard it was
without teachers and rabbis from abroad who were willing for an extended period
to commit to bringing sustainable Jewish education to their fledgling
During one of my sessions in Szarvas, I pulled out some
“trigger” quotes from Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, Israel’s first chief
rabbi: “The Land of Israel is part of the very essence of our nationhood; it is
bound organically to its very life and inner being.... A valid strengthening of
Judaism in the Diaspora can come only from a deepened attachment to the Land of
While perhaps a provocative statement for young Diaspora
leaders, I think the latter thought refers to a quality of Diaspora Jewish life
that can only be achieved through conscious efforts to connect Jews to their
Land and history.
In our day, this includes deep and meaningful Israel
education. Kook’s words only affirm that Israel must be part of the spiritual
and physical journey of the Diaspora Jew – and that Jewish education in Diaspora
communities must be a flagship priority for Israel and world Jewry in
Beyond the impressive Jewish environment of Szarvas, the camp
infuses considerable Israel awareness into its compressed, 12-day sessions. The
lively, soulful Hebrew music and dancing led by warm and charismatic Israeli
professionals, the Israel-focused activities led by the madrichim, the “Israeli
Corner,” and most importantly, the person- to-person contact with the Israeli
group and staff, all create an “Israel” impact on the campers.
is still much to be done. I will never forget the responses of the 10-
to-12-year-old Hungarian campers when they sat down with us in the Israeli
Corner and we asked them to share their one-word associations with Israel:
“soldiers,” “war,” “danger,” “desert.” As we moved on with the activities, which
included a homemade movie about our town in my corner, and youth group and army
activities in the other corners, their faces lit up with enjoyment, and many had
their own questions afterward.
One girl said: “Today I learned that some
people move to Israel by choice, because they want to.” Others spoke about the
common hobbies and interests that they shared with Israeli children.
the younger campers, Szarvas is often their first contact with
Many of the older groups have relatives in Israel, or they
themselves are children of olim who moved back to their home countries. In both
cases, the seeds of connection must continually be sown and nourished with fresh
My favorite sessions in camp were facilitating two
theatrical workshops on the theme of “Jewish Journeys” – first by madrichim,
then by 16- to-18-yearold campers from Moldova – depicting scenes from my
husband’s family’s journey from Belarus to Israel, including my husband’s brit
mila on a kitchen table in Leningrad at age 21. (The Moldovans skilfully had his
personage pass behind a screen and say, “Ouch!”) By acting out this modern
example of ingathering of the exiles, they connected the worlds of their
great-grandparents and the history of their own families to the warm, modern
Israelis whom they could meet and relate to today.
thought-provoking Szarvas encounter underscores this need for a vibrant
On a Shabbat walk to the botanical gardens
near camp, I met Christopher, a soft-spoken 18-year-old from the Czech Republic.
He began our conversation with, “I would also like to live in Israel,” and
shared the following story: His grandmother had converted to Judaism (his
grandfather was Jewish).
However, shortly after the birth of his mother,
his grandmother became an ardent Christian again, and she and her daughter
raised Christopher and his brother, Cyril, in a devout Christian environment.
When Christopher was 12, he became interested in his Jewish roots and persuaded
his parents to send him to a Jewish school in Prague. When the third child of
the family was born, the parents deferred to Christopher’s request and named the
new baby Sarah.
I told Christopher about God’s promise to Abraham. God
did not tell Abraham that all of his descendants would grow up together,
harmoniously, in the Promised Land, but that they would go into a long exile,
and “the fourth generation will return here” (Genesis 15:16).
and the other young people of Szarvas are part of this fourth generation, who
after decades of enforced exile, are returning to their roots, to their proud
traditions, and to their land. I feel lucky to have walked with them, even a few
steps, along their respective Jewish journeys.
I also feel proud to have
worked for Malben-JDC and now have an enhanced awareness of how critical their
Jewish renewal work is in this part of the world, and for world Jewry as a
My Szarvas experience reopened my eyes to the mutual
responsibility of one Jew for another, particularly those “under the radar” in
Eastern Europe, the FSU and India.
They now fill my heart and are an
evolving, integral part of my own personal Jewish journey. ■ The writer is the
founding director of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli-National Jewish Leadership
Initiative for Young Russian-Speaking Israelis, and lives with her husband and
six children in Neveh Daniel.