Young Eastern Europeans Discover Judaism at Camp Outside Warsaw

A number of young Jews and Jewish families from Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union spent a remarkable summer vacation together in a camp geared to the celebration of being Jewish.

The camp, a project of the New York-based Ronald Lauder Foundation, was held at an 18th century palace at Zaborow, about 15 miles from Warsaw, which the foundation rented for the month of July.

The families came from Lvov, in the Soviet Ukraine, and Vilnius, Lithuania, both of which had once been part of Poland.

Nine American youths selected by the National Council of Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox group, also took part.

The kids dressed like any Western, non-religious teen-agers, in baggy pants and long sweat shirts. Some girls wore Annie Hall hats, some boys wore kipot. They could have been students at any American high school.

The camp included a kosher kitchen, Hebrew lessons, lectures on Jewish topics and daily prayers according to Orthodox tradition for those who wished to participate.

There were also traditional recreational activities, as you would find at any camp, but there was something more, and activity that perhaps no camp in the world has entertained as a communal endeavor: the participants tended to neglected graves in a Jewish cemetery.

Translation needs were met by Stanislaw Krajewski, a Warsaw Jewish activist and Poland representative of the American Jewish Congress, who spent nearly a month at the camp with his wife, Monika, and two children.

This was not the first time the Lauder Foundation has set up such a summer camp. For the past two summers, the foundation has sponsored similar gatherings in Poland and Hungary.

But this year, the demand for the camp was great as the “word got out” and reservations started “coming in from everywhere,” said Rabbi Michael Shudrich of the Lauder Foundation.

KOSHER FOOD A NOVELTY

The participants came from all kinds of homes, including mixed marriages of homes with no religious tradition. Many of them spoke of the uneasy feeling of not fitting in among their peers and of having experienced discrimination.

For many, it was the first time they were together with so many Jews at one time.

Kosher food was also a novel experience for most of the participants, as not a single Polish or Soviet participant kept kosher at home. They said they found the experience strange, educational, even nice.

Krajewski, who belongs to a community of young Jewish activists who celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, said there were about 80 people at the camps at any one time.

But on Shabbat, the number swelled by another 20 to 40 people, many of them staying over Friday night, sleeping in sleeping bags.

“The Soviets were totally surprised,” Krajewski said. “They didn’t realize it would be such a heavy Jewish program.”

“For most of the Soviets, it was their first time out of the Soviet Union,” he said. “It will really have a lasting influence on them.”

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