SZARVAS, Hungary (Aug. 2)
Before coming to the Szarvas Summer Camp, Elina Zhitomirskya, 13, had heard little about synagogues, only that they were places where Jews gathered to pray. Though raised by her Jewish mother, she does not know if there’s a synagogue in her hometown of Bryansk, a city 250 miles southwest of Moscow.
Last Friday evening, then, was a milestone for Zhitomirskaya, who was among some 400 Jewish youth from Central and Eastern Europe celebrating Shabbat in Beit David, the camp’s new synagogue
“It doesn’t matter what language it will be in — Russian, Hungarian or Hebrew,” Zhitomirskaya said before the service. “What matters is that I’ll be connected with God.”
Through Beit David, the first synagogue to be built in Hungary since the Holocaust, future Szarvas campers will also be able to connect to their Judaism.
The airy, red-brick-and-pinewood synagogue was inaugurated July 17 by its American benefactor, Ronald Lauder, who founded the camp in 1990 along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The synagogue was named in memory of David Ben-Rafael, an Israeli diplomat who was killed in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Ralph Goldman, the father of Ben-Rafael and the JDC’s honorary executive vice president, dedicated a plaque to his son at the inauguration.
About three-quarters of Hungary’s 800,000-strong community perished during the Holocaust. Now, some 100,000 Jews remain.
It’s fitting that the nation’s first synagogue to built from the ground up in more than half a century — several others have been restored — is located at Szarvas, which serves as a center for building Jewish identity among Eastern European youth.
“I always knew I was Jewish,” said Zhitomirskaya. “But it’s here that I’ve become interested in what being Jewish means.”
The series of four two-week programs continues to grow in popularity. Youth from Belarus and Lithuania arrived this summer for the first time — and in Russia, the waiting list has stretched to 150 names.
The opening of Beit David has now made Szarvas complete, said Camp Director Yitzhak Roth.
“Synagogue is one of the pillars of Jewish life. Without it, it’s not really complete,” said Roth, an Israeli who has led the camp with his wife since 1991.
Beit David does not have a resident rabbi, he said. Rather, an ad-hoc committee of Orthodox Israeli and Hungarian camp counselors — four of whom are students at the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary — lead the campers in prayer.
While synagogue attendance is not compulsory, “for those who have a desire to worship their own faith, we felt we owed them this opportunity,” Roth said.
Boris Ploskovitev was grateful for that chance.
Like Zhitomirskaya, Ploskovitev had never been to synagogue. In fact, the 14- year-old from Moscow, who is estranged from his Jewish father, regularly attends church with his Russian Orthodox mother.
But that practice will soon end, he said.
From the moment he stepped in to Beit David last week, “I felt better and more comfortable than I had in a church,” said Ploskovitev. “I don’t know what my mother will say, but I don’t want to go to church anymore.”