Rebuilding Jewish Life at Camp
With pink streaks in her spiky black hair, flip-flops, and spaghetti strap tank top, Sonja Vilicic, 25, looks more like a rock star than a Jewish educator. But when she takes the microphone and leads the campers in morning prayers at the Lauder/JDC International ewish Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary, nobody disputes her authority. Vilicic, along with Sasha Friedman, 26, and Zsusza Fritz, 42, make up a team of directors that run their camp with the love and diligence of a mother running her household.
The Ronald Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee founded the camp in 1990 to address the needs of a growing population that wanted to return to its Jewish roots after the fall of Communism. Today, in four consecutive sessions every summer, Szarvas opens its gates to more than 2,000 Jewish campers ages 8-18, representing 22 different countries from Hungary and Russia to the United States and India.
Long-time camp director Yitzchak ‘Yitzko’ Roth, who joined the staff after the first summer, enthused on the camp’s creative and experiential approach to education, “The giving of the Ten Commandments—it happened here! We didn’t just learn about them, we actually saw Moses giving them on top of the Kupola [domed gymnasium] with fire and smoke and everyone gathered around together.”
This method of education enchanted the first generation of Szarvas campers who arrived knowing little to nothing about the traditions, heritage and history of Judaism. Roth recalled, “I was wearing a tallit for the first Shabbat prayer services, and all the children were pulling at my fringes and asking me, ‘Yitzko, what is it that you are wearing?’ They had never seen one before.”
Barbi Szendy attended Szarvas’s inaugural 1990 session as a camper and has returned every summer since. She now leads the youngest Hungarian Unit and also works during the year at the Balint JCC in Budapest. She said, “Szarvas was different from school or the synagogue. It collected Jewish children from lots of different places and just allowed us to be Jewish in a way that was forbidden under Communism. We sang together, danced together, but most importantly, we talked and understood that we were all Jewish and had something important in common.”
Over the past eighteen years, the ideal of one large global Jewish community shielded the camp from the realities of the outside world. Wars, politics, and anti-Semitism seemed to permeate every aspect of campers’ lives during the year, but never penetrated the gates of Szarvas.
“During the years of the Yugoslavian war, camp was a safe haven for the children from those countries,” explained Fritz, the Educational Director of Szarvas and Director of the Balint JCC. “Here was the only place during the entire year where they could meet their friends. Here it was possible to forget about the problems of the outside world, as if they didn’t exist at all.”
Even today in camp, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Kosovo) are each still their own units, as if the countries had never split. Still the campers of these two former nations sing the same birthday songs, chant the same unit cheers, play on the same sports teams and share identities that seem unbroken by the realities and tensions of their individual countries. Both groups still declare they have more in common as Jews than they ever had as countrymen.
“I’ll never forget the year they decided that Czechoslovakia was going to split,” Fritz recalled, “We had a talent show in the camp and the unit got up in front of everyone and said that all they were going to do was sing the national anthem together for the last time.”
Now that the political situation in Europe seems to have stabilized, the Jews of these communities face a harsh daily reality of anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that this generation is the first to attend Szarvas without any memories of Communism, the realities of life in small, isolated Jewish communities among sometimes hostile neighbors reinforce the continued relevance of the camp.
One of the counselors for the Slovakian group this summer, who did not wish to give her name, said that Szarvas is the only place she feels comfortable enough to wear her Jewish star and she saves it all year for those two weeks. “I’m afraid to wear my star around Bratislava because then everyone will know I am a Jew and make trouble for me. Usually I wear something else like a hamsa, because no one knows what that is and it’s a symbol only for me.”
Fourteen-year-old Mark Slominsky from Latvia agreed, “Here I get to wear a kippah and I can’t do that at home. It feels really good.”
Ennis Hulli, age 17, from Izmir, Turkey, returned to camp for his third summer. He said, “I love coming to Szarvas because at home in Izmir, the Jewish population is small. But here, you really feel a part of one big Jewish community, and it gives you the courage to be who you are.”
For Vilicic too, this place is much more than a day at the office. When she and her brother were evacuated to Budapest from Serbia during the bombings, it was friends from Szarvas who met them at the JCC, soothed their fears, and made them feel at home. From that moment on, she realized she was a part of something bigger than just an average summer camp.
“I have the best job in the world,” said Vilicic, as she shuffles campers to the dining hall after morning prayers, “I don’t care about business; it couldn’t make me this happy. The people here came and took care of me when I needed them. They inspired me to become who I am. This place is my home and this is my family!”
Erin Beser is a freelance writer and Jewish educator currently based in Izmir, Turkey.