By Michael Diamond–This summer, my 19 year old son Ari and I decided to set out on a unique Jewish adventure.
We traveled to Budapest, learned about the Jewish community in Hungary and then spent several weeks at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC Camp in Szarvas, Hungary.
There is no Jewish place in the world like Szarvas. It is a melting pot comprised of Jewish young people from at least 23 countries and is one piece of the rebuilding of the Diaspora in this part of the world. And it demonstrates, once again, the capacity of the Jewish people to not only survive but to rebuild regardless of what adversities we encounter.
Ari and I knew about the Holocaust and about communism. But before visiting Budapest and Szarvas, we really did not fully comprehend the combined devastating effect these two events had on the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and Russia. First they persecuted us, then they killed most of us, then the new powers told us we could not follow our faith. Despite all that, there is a joyful rejuvenation taking place. And perhaps the best place to see, hear, and feel that resurgence is among the young people at the Szarvas camp in southeastern Hungary. This is where you can see a small group of the next generation of Jews demonstrate their passionate desire to grab hold of what being Jewish has to offer and not let it go, regardless of the obstacles.
Like most Jews in North America, Ari and I both grew up in homes where it was easy to be Jewish. We were surrounded and supported in our Judaism by our family and by thousands of other Jews. But being Jewish in Eastern Europe is the exception rather than the rule. For many of these young Jews, camp is the best place to be Jewish, and in some cases the only place. In this nurturing environment, they are encouraged to not only enjoy their Judaism, but embrace it as well, as they set out on their personal journeys to learn about being Jewish. For them, their being Jewish is a challenge because it was not expected, seldom rewarded and often opposed.
There is purity in being Jewish in Szarvas that one does not necessarily experience in our Jewish world. Perhaps that purity comes from the fact that being Jewish in Szarvas is the result of a conscious choice, and not a necessity nor a natural eventuality. When our young people participate in the March of the Living, the implication is that the first half of the trip in Eastern Europe is the time of death, of the Holocaust, of emptiness, of pain. Then follows Israel – the place of rebuilding. It is a marvelous juxtaposition. But perhaps we need to reorient our thinking now to accommodate the new reality we find in the stirrings of the rebirth of the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Perhaps what is to be celebrated is not just the birth of a strong Israel, but the beginnings of a New Diaspora arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the grey shadow of communism.
Today we have a new generation of young pioneers, centralized at least once a year in Szarvas, who have embarked on their own great Jewish adventure. As they continue to learn and discover all that Judaism has to offer, it is clear that we have much to learn from them in their conscious embrace of Judaism.
Michael Diamond is a former teacher, lawyer and business executive who sits on the executive of the Canada Israel Committee, Leave out Violence Toronto and International, is chair of UJA Federation’s Makom Committee and co-chair of top gifts at Holy Blossom. He provides advisory services to Israel Bonds Canada, and several other non-profit organizations. Ari Diamond is a third year Arts student at McGill University.