Summer Camps in Slovakia Vital to Sustaining Jewish Life

For young Jews here, summer camps are the lifeline to deepening their identity and to sustaining contact with Jewish youth in the other half on the former Czechoslovakia.

Maintaining the connection is the Czechoslovakian union of Jewish Youth, the only Jewish organization that did not split when the country divided in 1993.

For 10 days in July, some 50 Jewish students from Slovakia and the Czech Republic came together at a summer camp organized by the union in the Central Slovakian town of Liptovsky Mikulas.

Every day, the youths swam, hiked and relaxed in the sun.

But they also worked with students from the Christian Union of Slovakia to reconstruct both the town’s crumbling synagogue and an old church.

Once, 5,000 Jews lived in this town, filling its enormous ornate synagogue. Today, no Jews remain.

“Summer camps take a great importance here because there is virtually no other form of Jewish education,” said Fero Alexander, the executive director of Slovakia’s Jewish community. “The camps have a big impact on their Jewish identity.”

Each year, the Czechoslovakian Union of Jewish Youth holds summer camps dedicated to repairing the Jewish community both spiritually and physically.

While the camps are talking place, the youths live in towns throughout Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As they clean and fix neglected synagogues and cemeteries, they learn about the Jewish history of these once-great centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The students estimated that before the Holocaust, Slovakia’s 100,00 Jews lived in some 220 towns and villages. They believe that up to 800 Jewish cemeteries and 100 former synagogues still stand.

Now, the synagogues are often bakeries, warehouses and public schools, said the young members of the Czechoslovakian Union of Jewish Youth.

About 400 Jews from the ages of 15 to 35 make up the union, founded only five years ago. Almost two-thirds of the members are from Slovakia, the rest from Czech Republic.

“We are not so big a group and we would like to stay together,” said Andrea Haas, a young member of the union. “It would seem very strange to separate just because our country did.”

The youths organize holiday celebrations and seminars, and publish a newspaper, which has become the only Jewish journal in Slovakia.

The students do not know how long they will be able to stem the tide of history and remain united as their countries continue to grow apart. Problems are quickly arising as the economic situation in the Czech Republic continues to improve far more rapidly than in Slovakia.

“If there would be a divorce – a split – I think would be start of the end of Jewish youth here,” said Tomas Stern, a 23-year-old medical student in Bratislava who was one of the founders of the union and its president for two years. “Separate unions just couldn’t organize the events that we can organize together.”

Of the 4,000 Jews in Slovakia today, “about 70 percent of them are over the age of 60,” said Moshe Jahoda, the American Jewish Distribution Committee’s representative in Slovakia. The JDC supports many of the Jewish activities here.

Most of Slovakia’s Jews were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp during World War II. For those Jews who survived and remained, communism forcibly eradicated much of their Jewish identity and knowledge.

Every activity that helps the younger generation discover its Jewish heritage is a lifeline for the tiny community.

In addition to the camps organized by the union, other young Jews are enjoying Jewish activities in Slovakia this summer.

In a park in the center of Bratislava, Lubavitch Rabbi Boruch Myers and his wife, Chana, have recently finished running a summer camp they named “Gan Israel,” or Garden of Israel.

Under the watchful eyes of two Slovakian police officers and camp counselors from England and America, 25 children from 3 to 13 years old played and learned about their Jewish heritage.

In the mornings they made challah and sang Hebrew songs.

In the afternoons they sailed on boats down the Danube River or took horse-and- buggy rides.

They also visited Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue. For many of the children, this was the first time they had ever seen a synagogue.

The American-born Myers, 31, came to Slovakia two years ago to be rabbi of the Jewish community of Bratislava. he and his wife are committed to settling here permanently with their four small children and helping the community to rediscover its Jewish heritage.

They run the camp in the public park next to their home.

“We see the camp as the foundation of all our educational activities,” the Myers said.

The rabbi dreams of the time when his own children will no longer need to travel more than an hour each way to Vienna to attend a Jewish kindergarten – When there will once again be Jewish schools in Slovakia.

He has already started a small Sunday school and hopes to start a kindergarten in September.

“We decided that if there are five Jewish kids of kindergarten age we would try to make a kindergarten,” he said.

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