CHANIOTIS, Greece (JTA) — It’s called Summer U, but most of the more than 500 young Jews who attend the European Union of Jewish Students’ largest annual event don’t come for the seminars.
Packed three and four to a room in two boxy white hotels in this speck of a beach town on northeastern Greece’s Chalkidiki peninsula, participants juggle workshops, speakers and the most popular option — straying from the program and heading to the beach.
Attendees bond over cocktails and nightly theme parties. Relationships blossom and, by week’s end, phone numbers have been exchanged, Facebook photos tagged and reunion plans made.
For a Jewish Europe grappling with the challenges of assimilation and intermarriage, Summer U is a success story. It is known for producing more than a few marriages over the years.
“We have to be honest: If we don’t want to disappear, we need to get married together," said Deborah Abisror, the executive director of EUJS. "And it’s just crazy — it works for that."
Deborah Teboul of Marseilles, in southern France, admits she came to Summer U with a specific goal in mind.
"I won’t lie to you — I wanted new friends and maybe the opportunity to meet some guy," she said, smiling. "When you’re my age, you can’t meet Jewish people unless you go the synagogue every Saturday. It’s not easy."
At a salsa class early in the Summer U week, Teboul danced with a Swiss man — a fellow participant she says she’s now "in a sort of relationship with."
Stories like hers are standard fare at Summer U, which ran from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4 and draws Jews aged 18 to 35. The event, sometimes more formally referred to as Summer University, has been around since 1984.
Abisror, who is from France, said the true focus of EUJS is on smaller events — like a 50-person interfaith delegation she led to Morocco last year.
EUJS, however, has come to depend on the infusion of funding and the raucous enthusiasm provided by Summer U. And the larger Jewish world is taking notice: The gathering receives financial support from a host of international Jewish organizations.
In past years, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, has shown up to address the gathering. This year the AJC sent two representatives in their early 20s to lead a pair of workshops and stay for the full week.
Harris’ assistant, Ellisa Sagor, said the experience of attending the conference offers “a fuller picture of what European Jewry looks like today."
"They don’t look afraid. They don’t look timid," she said. "They’re happy, they’re spirited, they’re vibrant and they’re outwardly proud Jews."
Sagor noted the value of allowing friendships and connections to develop over the course of eight days. Indeed, at last year’s Summer U, another young attendee from the AJC met her now fiance, a Colombian Jew.
Yet for all of Summer U’s success as a social event, the festive elements can overshadow the more serious components. The nightly parties with themes such as Facebook and “red carpet” — each with its own corresponding dress code — were packed, while most workshops drew crowds of about 30 at most.
After all, it’s not easy for a PowerPoint presentation on the American Jewish community’s response to the Palestinian statehood push to compete with beach volleyball.
"Of course it’s a lot of people partying. What do you want from a mass of Jewish students?" said Andrea Gergely, who was elected at the conference to be the next president of EUJS.
Still, Gergely, who lives in Budapest and will start her term in January, says she is looking to diversify the seminars and add arts and crafts, yoga and sports tournaments to the event’s schedule.
Gergely hopes that a wider array of programming will appeal to Summer U participants, some of whom may be looking for a middle ground between lectures and the beach.
Participants, for the most part, seem pretty happy with Summer U as an opportunity to socialize.
"Jewish marriage and friendship is one of the unofficial goals of any Jewish organization," said Aleksey Krasnitsky, a project manager with the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students and Kiev resident who has been coming to Summer U for the past six years. "I’d be very happy if after Summer U we get the news of a Jewish marriage — that’s the most important thing, in my point of view."
In interviews about the conference, participants often would begin by discussing Summer U’s seminars and speakers, move on to speak about the importance of pan-European Jewish friendship and then lower their voices, almost conspiratorially, to discuss the relationships they came here to find.
For Stephen Przyrowski, a Parisian attending his third Summer U, the emphasis that many participants place on romance can be a little stressful.
"You can see they put pressure on themselves, a lot of the men, especially," he said. "They’re searching too hard for their soulmate."
Illan Obadia, a Parisian information technology and finance consultant who was attending his first Summer U, said he was not looking for a one-night stand.
"During the nights, several couples are created, and by the morning they are finished," he said with a wry laugh. "If I can find a woman for my life, yes, but for one night? No."
Still, Obadia is no cynic when it comes to Summer U.
At the entrance to the main hotel, the event’s "animation team” — a sort of Summer U motivation squad — had posted several blank white sheets with the instructions "Make a wish — we will make it happen!"
Writing in big block letters across several pieces of paper, Obadia asked the organizers to develop a Winter U, an Autumn U and a Spring U.