From Hungary, A Lesson in Building Community


For Jews, the history of Budapest is a tale of two cities – one majestic, the other tragic. The city’s beauty was on full display when I visited earlier this month. The buildings look like wedding cakes, built when the city was one of Austria-Hungary’s two capitals. Once nicknamed “Judah-pest” for its large and proud Jewish population, Budapest was the birthplace of Theodore Herzl. A century ago, the city’s Jews were successful bankers, professionals, and intellectuals. Some earned the Iron Cross, serving in Emperor Franz Joseph’s army during World War I.

But this golden era ended in 1920 when the government imposed harsh discrimination against Jews. Hungary allied with Hitler during World War II. Hungarian Fascists murdered thousands of Jews, shooting them on the shore of the Danube. Today a moving memorial – rows of shoes on the riverbank – reminds us of their fate.

In addition, half a million Jews were murdered in concentration camps. I met several brave women who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. With Holocaust reparation funds provided by our partners, the Claims Conference, we at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provide material support and home care to 3,500 Hungarian survivors.

Although the Holocaust was an unprecedented tragedy experienced by this generation of Hungarian Jews, it was not the last. After driving the Germans out of Hungary, the Soviet army replaced one tyranny with another, repressing protests in 1956 and perpetuating a communist government until 1989. Since this regime discouraged organized religion, many Hungarian Jews abandoned their rituals and traditions.

Despite this tragic history, as well as growing concerns about anti-Semitism in contemporary Hungary, Hungarian Jewish life today is like a garden blooming in the desert.

Perhaps the greatest miracle is the Szarvas International Jewish Summer Camp, a partnership of JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. For 27 years, its bunks, sports facilities, dining hall, synagogue, and swimming pool have introduced 20,000 young Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to Jewish culture and tradition, bringing them back to the Jewish people.

“A slice of global Jewish community the likes of which I’d never seen before.”

I visited Szarvas with Eric Goldstein, the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, which is a key partner in JDC’s work across the globe. Eric summed up our visit perfectly in describing Szarvas as, “a slice of global Jewish community the likes of which I’d never seen before.”

The campers range in age from 6 to 19. Many did not even know they were Jewish until their parents told them they were going to Szarvas. But you would never know it when you see them standing on tables to sing Hebrew songs in the dining hall. The experience turns them into proud and confident Jews, who go home to teach their parents, grandparents, and friends what they have learned.

Indeed, every summer, Szarvas mints 1,600 Jewish future leaders and activists from 22 countries. The Duke of Wellington famously said that the Battle of Waterloo – the British victory over Napoleon – was “won on the playing fields of Eton,” a highly regarded British school. In the same way, the Jewish future of Central and Eastern Europe is being shaped on the camp grounds of Szarvas.

Campers go on to become counselors, and then leaders or founders of local Jewish institutions. Szarvas alums are deeply engaged in other JDC initiatives in Budapest, including the Balint House Jewish Community Center; the annual Jewish street festival, “Judafest,” which drew 10,000 attendees this summer; and a grassroots innovation incubator, the “Moziak Hub,” which provides seed funds and mentoring for new and grassroots Jewish organizations.

Szarvas’ reach extends well beyond Hungary. For example, Tinatin, a Szarvas alum who served as unit leader at Szarvas for part of this summer and radiated energy and commitment, will spend the rest of this summer running a Jewish camp in Poland (which JDC helped establish years ago). In my past eight months as JDC’s CEO, I have met scores of current and rising Jewish leaders across Europe. Virtually all are Szarvas alums.

Szarvas has impact in America as well. Approximately 100 young American Jews participate in Szarvas every summer. They return home inspired by their European colleagues’ enthusiasm, and mindful – much more than they were before – of how fortunate American Jews are to have access to so many vibrant Jewish institutions. At the same time, the European campers are empowered by the Jewish knowledge and confidence of their American counterparts.

Szarvas exemplifies JDC’s two main strategies for reviving Jewish life in places where it once was dormant. First, we and our partners engage Jews in Jewish communal life, training them to be leaders. Second, we embrace these local leaders as partners, knowing they have unique insight about conditions on the ground. They understand how to attract those who have been cut off from Jewish life.

Engaging, training, and partnering with local leaders has produced inspiring results. This track record has persuaded Jewish federations and philanthropists to support partnerships between JDC and local communities for decades. Matching local talent and knowledge with global expertise, these initiatives have helped to reignite the spark of Jewish life across the globe.

This is not to say that these partnerships are always easy. For example, there sometimes is tension among different local groups and leaders who compete for resources, and choosing which to support is not always straightforward.

But if building sustainable communities were easy, success wouldn’t be so inspiring. Szarvas is a shining example of what is possible when we apply a fundamental principle: together we are stronger and only together can we create Jewish communities that stand the test of time.

David M. Schizer is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).