PRAGUE (Jul. 31)
Summer camps are anything but an excuse to soak up the sun for Slovakia’s chief rabbi, Baruch Myers. They are a key element in the U.S.-born rabbi’s mission to reach out to Slovak Jews whose families lost touch with their heritage after the Holocaust.
The Chabad rabbi has been running summer camps since arriving in the Slovak capital of Bratislava in 1993.
But this year’s session was especially significant for Myers because it was held for the first time in a new 600-square-yard educational center he and his wife recently set up in the capital.
Thirty children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, spent two weeks at the center in July.
The program combines camp activities with Jewish education.
They’re introduced to simple Jewish prayers before and after meals, and are taught about Jewish festivals and traditions.
The camps offer Myers a way to attract assimilated Jews. Although Bratislava has an official Jewish community of just 400, hundreds more are thought to have abandoned their Jewish heritage or simply refused to acknowledge it publicly.
“In some ways, the camp is a centerpiece of our educational program,” Myers said. “It is a very short commitment, it is fun and it is a nonthreatening start to joining the program. It is leading some parents to enroll” their children “in our kindergarten because they gain faith in our program.”
The hardest part for Myers is finding the non-affiliated Jews.
In some cases, he has established links with Jews outside the official community only by chance. Myers found one family through the funeral of a elderly woman who was already known in Jewish circles.
“Some people try to obliterate their Jewishness. That is impossible,” Myers said. “They assimilated but not entirely. There is just enough of a vestige of their Jewish identity, and if we can offer them something besides Jewishness we can attract them.”
The father of six has already enjoyed considerable success in this regard. He and his wife established a kindergarten for 3- to 6-year-olds in their own home several years ago. Myers expects 14 or 15 to attend next year.
The project’s success led to the establishment of the educational center just yards from the heart of the Jewish community in Bratislava.
The center, which costs $60,000 a year to run, offers English lessons and will allow for seminars on Jewish themes. Myers wants to build a library, too.
“We really feel that the potential for growth is among the Jews no one knows about yet,” he said. “We are already enhancing the lives of those who were not identifying with the Jewish people but who are now.”