Kids from Sderot enjoy safety of JDC-Lauder camp in Hungary, get to know children from many countries
SZARVAS, Hungary—For the seventeenth summer since its creation, the Lauder-JDC International Jewish summer camp at Szarvas once again welcomed approximately 2,000 children from 23 different countries around the world to experience the magic of this Jewish oasis in Hungary. The camp was established in 1990, one year after the collapse of communism, and has since served as an engine of Jewish life, transmitting Jewish values and tradition to tens of thousands of youth from places as distant and disparate as Eastern and Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, Turkey and India. As Michael, a Canadian who visited the camp this summer observed, “More than anywhere and anytime since the formation of the State of Israel, [Szarvas is] a reflection of the ability of Judaism to survive and rebuild regardless of what adversities we have encountered as a people. There is simply no other place in the world like Szarvas.” And indeed, Szarvas is more than just a summer camp. It is a breeding ground for Jewish identity, values and peoplehood. It is a place where Jewish kids and young adults, thirsty for knowledge and meaning, learn about their heritage and explore their future as young leaders and community builders. Many Szarvas ‘graduates’ leave with a heightened Jewish awareness and act as educators in their homes, imparting Jewish values, culture, and soulfulness. And most importantly, they return from Szarvas feeling empowered with a renewed sense of belonging to a global Jewish community. This heightened sense of Jewish connectedness took on its own unique expression this summer when JDC, together with the Israeli Embassy in Hungary, welcomed to Szarvas 40 teens from the southern Israeli town of Sderot. In recent years, Sderot has been a target of repeated rocket attacks, and for these youngsters, Szarvas afforded a respite from the daily danger and trauma of war. “The truth is that I didn’t expect anything,” replied 14-year-old Keren when asked what she anticipated getting from her time at Szarvas prior to arriving there. “All I yearned for was safety and peace.” Shira, another teenager from Sderot, related the constraints imposed on her by the violence. “I hardly leave the house anymore,” she confessed. “It is just too dangerous. Here at Szarvas was the first time in so long that I could be outside without fear.” And while the Kibbutz-like atmosphere of Szarvas certainly exudes peace, the 2,000 children and madrichim (counselors) who will have experienced the camp this summer will take away much more with them upon departure. This year’s theme at the camp was “to be continued.” Drawing from the Beit Hatfutzot Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, it sought to explain the survival and continuity of the Jewish people throughout history. Other activities centered on the role of Jewish responsibility in the world. Kids discussed the meaning of tzedaka and social justice, and considered the importance of helping those in need. Providing a safe haven for Israeli youngsters whose home town had been devastated by rocket attacks was a vivid illustration of those values. Having been so warmly embraced by their Jewish peers from around the world, the group from Sderot left with a newfound awareness of, and their own sense of responsibility for, Jewish communities residing in the Diaspora. Twelve days spent at the camp enabled the Sderot youngsters to teach, as well as to learn from their Eastern European counterparts. While sharing the challenges of living in an insecure environment, they learned about the realities of being Jewish in Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU, and discovered the role they can play in building connections with their Jewish peers outside of Israel. “For the first time in my life I see myself as a representative of Israel and a model of Jewish identity,” said one of the Israeli teens, “and for the first time I realize I belong to a larger Jewish community, which strengthens all of us.” Hundreds of children and counselors from around the world, embracing one another and singing, attests that “Am Yisrael Chai”—the Jewish nation lives—and so does the invincible Jewish spirit at Szarvas.