Reflections from Szarvas: ‘And the fourth generation will return here’

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.

Shabbat dancing in Szarvas, Hungary521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Shabbat dancing in Szarvas, Hungary521
(photo credit: courtesy)
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” to Szarvas.
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.
My first 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 Szarvas.
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 them.
But these encounters also caused me a bit of ideological tumult.
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 Israel.
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 destination.
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.”
But if 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 communities.
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 Israel.”
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 general.
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.
But there 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.
For the younger campers, Szarvas is often their first contact with Israel.
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 perspectives.
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.
My most thought-provoking Szarvas encounter underscores this need for a vibrant Israel-Diaspora connection.
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).
Christopher 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 whole.
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.