JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review August 31, 1999 / 19 Elul, 5759

Michael J. Jordan

In the heart of Europe, camp builds Jewish pride, enthusiasm

(JTA) SZARVAS, Hungary ---- For the past 10 summers, a geyser of Jewish pride has erupted in this small town deep in the Hungarian plains.

It is an event unique in Central and Eastern Europe where -- after half a century of fascism, war, Holocaust and communism -- Jewish pride had become an anomaly.

The source of this mini-revival is the Ronald S. Lauder/JDC International Camp, a sprawling facility that features a full range of normal summer camp activities, all linked by a learning-is-fun pedagogy that bolsters Jewish identity and nurtures Jewish leaders of the future.

Here, Jewish children from nearly a score of countries sing camp songs around camp fires -- but they are Hebrew songs. Arts and crafts projects employ methods and materials common to summer camps around the world, but they have a Jewish flavor. Children are encouraged to draw and model Jewish symbols.

Kids learn about Jewish holidays and history. Skits, pageants and other participatory events also revolve around Jewish themes. Kids pray in the camp synagogue, eat in the kosher cafeteria and even celebrate joint Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.


"We feel like we've started something here," said Budapest native Judit Kepecs, 20, who first went to the Szarvas camp nine years ago as a camper and is now a member of the staff.

"The more we know about our roots, the more we have to be proud of. So I want to pass on that knowledge to the younger generation."

In the decade since the fall of communism, local Jewish camps have been established in countries across the region as a means of teaching children, young people and even entire families about Jewish traditions, culture and history.

But Szarvas is unique among them. Drawing participants from all over the post-Communist world, it has developed into a true international reference point for Jewish identity, impressing upon campers that they are members of a nation scattered across many borders.

"If it were up to me, this place would go on forever," said Yitzhak Roth, the camp's director. Roth is an Israeli of Hungarian origin who has run the camp with his wife, Hannah, since 1991.

"For most of these kids, this is the one and only place to make them proud Jews and lead them back to the Jewish world."

Szarvas, run under the auspices of the Lauder foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was purchased by the Lauder Foundation in 1989 and renovated to fulfill Jewish needs. Located a two-hour drive southeast of Budapest, it opened in 1990.

Leiters Sukkah

By now the camp each summer hosts a total of about 2,000 children, aged 7-18, in four 12-day sessions. The program is usually translated into four or five languages at a time. Among the 18 nations represented this year were two newcomers, the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, plus smaller groups from the United States and Germany.

The Lauder foundation, which sponsors many other Jewish youth and educational programs in Eastern and Central Europe, would like to get more American kids involved. The reason, Marjorie Federbush, the Lauder Foundation's executive vice president, recently told Szarvas campers, is "not because you need to meet them, but because they need to meet you."

Under Roth's dynamic leadership, the four camp sessions are packed with programs that are creatively tailored to meet the needs both of campers immersed in Jewish life back home as well as those with little or no Jewish knowledge, said Program Director Zsuzsa Fritz, a Hungarian who has worked at the camp for 10 years.

Roth himself, a veteran Israeli educator, exudes a boundless -- and infectious -- energy. Apparently free of inhibitions, he alternates between leading the campers in boisterous song and exhorting them to listen to a speaker in respectful silence.

Roth particularly enjoys the chaos of lunchtime. While the campers may be sleepy-eyed at breakfast or fatigued at dinner after a long day, they come primed for lunch.

Crammed into the cavernous, wood-paneled cafeteria, which is strung with numerous national flags but dominated by the blue and white of the Israeli Star of David, the campers immediately launch into competing chants among the various nation-groups.

On one day this summer, the rowdiest group was the "Yugos" -- young Jews from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia or Slovenia, all current or former republics of Yugoslavia. Their former country has been convulsed by four wars this decade. But here at Szarvas they were reunited, if for only 12 days.

Indeed, the deafening roar of their combined voices seemed a cathartic release of sorts since the 78 straight days of U.S.-led NATO airstrikes against Serbia that had ended only recently.

The cafeteria experience continues even after the dirty dishes are cleared away. Kids with birthdays are called forward, presented with gifts and serenaded with "Happy Birthday" in several languages. Then the Israeli songleader, Yossi, leads them in a round of Jewish favorites as dancing breaks out.

Visitors quickly realize that Szarvas represents more than summer fun.

Here, young Jews are free to howl the song "Aveinu Shalom Aleichem" at the top of their lungs and wear chai or Star of David necklaces outside their shirts. The din generated by these young campers is movingly described by some visitors as a "liberation of the Jewish spirit."

"I've cried here several times," said Mircea Cernov, a Romanian-born Israeli in the JDC's Budapest office. "It's not just the camp. It's the context, it's all the past put together."

JDC board member George Rich, a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, last year donated the Szarvas synagogue's velvet Torah covering in memory of his father, Karoly, who died in a concentration camp.

Szarvas "is a factory of Judaism" that should increase production, Rich said on a recent visit. "This will create tens of thousands of Jews out of kids who might have gone on to marry non-Jews and raised their kids without knowing anything about being Jewish."

Despite the optimism, however, two major questions loom for the future: how to reach more young Jews and, for those kids touched by Szarvas, how to keep that momentum going once the summer has ended.

The 2,000 kids who attend Szarvas each summer represent only a tiny fraction of all Jewish youth in the region. According to the JDC, 90 percent have attended two or more years, while half have enjoyed five summers or more. Waiting lists are long in almost every country -- especially in Russia.

Camp director Roth dreams of a second camp in Szarvas of equal size; one for the younger kids, the other for the older.

The greater challenge, though, is in deepening the children's Jewish experience outside Szarvas, said Fritz, the program director.

For many children, the Szarvas experience is their first -- and sometimes only -- encounter with Jewish education.

Roth suggests that parent groups be formed to organize Jewish activities during the school year. But this may not be enough -- or may not even be possible, given the tiny size of many isolated communities and the lack of Jewish knowledge among most parents.

"The moment you take them out of this special atmosphere, it changes for them," Fritz said.

"It's difficult to bridge the time between the summers. Everyone would love to be able to continue such a feeling through the year -- that's our purpose here -- but it's difficult, because it's not Szarvas. Most of the kids just look forward to the next summer.''


©1999 Jewish Telegraphic Agency