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Around the Jewish World Northern Israeli Kids Find Shelter at Jewish Summer Camp in Europe

August 22, 2006
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Aya Posklinsky would have preferred to spend the dog days of summer tossing water balloons at friends or rollerblading around her village. Instead, the 15-year-old spent two weeks cooped up in the family’s concrete bomb shelter, whiling away the time playing cards and watching music videos.

Overhead, four Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah hit her northern Israeli moshav of Mitzpe Hila, landing in people’s yards. But that was enough to deter most of the community from venturing aboveground.

Posklinsky was among 120 young Israelis, primarily from the country’s North, who have been given a breather in the latter half of August.

They were transported to Camp Szarvas, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation AJJDC International Jewish Summer Camp in rural eastern Hungary.

The camp opened in 1989 to give youth from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with little or no Jewish identity “a positive Jewish experience” to take back home, from celebrating Judaism and Jewish history to performing Israeli songs and dances.

Groups of Israeli and American youth attend each summer as well.

This year, as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel relocated some 40,000 young Israelis from northern to central Israel to escape the war with Hezbollah, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary inquired about Szarvas. The camp year already had begun, with some 2,000 kids expected during four two-week sessions.

But the Israeli need dovetailed with the broader missions of both the JDC and Szarvas: For the JDC, it’s to aid Jews in crisis; for Szarvas, it’s to impress upon young Jews from across the ex-Soviet sphere a sense of Jewish peoplehood.

“You can’t imagine the horrible, horrible trauma for children kept in a concrete room, with nothing to do and afraid to go outside,” says Steven Schwager, chief executive officer of the JDC, which runs Szarvas. “It became clear we needed to find ways for respite, to take kids out of shelters and into safer environments.”

Szarvas shoehorned an extra 120 Israeli kids — including seven Druse invited under the JDC’s mission to serve all Israelis — into the summer’s final session.

By the end of August, three groups of 40 kids will have spent three to four days in the camp and another three days touring Budapest.

Camp organizers also appealed for extra hands, like Eszter Lanyi, a Hungarian counselor and veteran of past Szarvas summers who lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew. Lanyi says she put her full-time job on hold for a fortnight.

“There was no question I would do it,” Lanyi says. “When there’s a crisis in Israel, the question in the Diaspora is, ‘What can we do?’ Many just talk about it. For me, I feel lucky to be here with this group. I’m able to contribute to their situation and their lives.”

This isn’t the first time the JDC and Szarvas have responded to crisis. In 1997, the JDC, which also has non-sectarian programs, arranged for Szarvas to host 88 non-Jewish youth from flood-stricken Poland.

In 1999, on the heels of NATO airstrikes to liberate Kosovo from Serbia, the camp invited an extra 100 Serbian Jews.

Last summer, 75 non-Jewish boys and girls who survived the September 2004 Chechen massacre at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia, arrived at Szarvas.

Szarvas struck the shell-shocked Israelis as surreal, a different planet.

“I can’t believe all these kids are Jews, from all different countries,” said Elinor Zino, 18, from the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been hit repeatedly by Palestinian rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Zino was in the middle session, from Aug. 15-18.

The camp also reminded Posklinsky of Israel in calmer times.

“It’s like a kibbutz,” she says. “It’s very green, people live close together, eating together, sharing chores, singing in Hebrew. I feel like I’m home.”

Yet the presence of the kids from northern Israel created a bit of a challenge for camp organizers, who need to find the proper balance when injecting the harsh reality of Israel’s conflict into the camp, which is supposed to be a fun atmosphere, says Yitzhak Roth, an Israeli who is the camp’s former director and now serves as a senior adviser.

By way of introducing the special group of campers, Roth spent 10 minutes the first night explaining to the entire camp population, ages 7 to 18, about the situation in Israel.

Internally, some of the counselors pressed for discussions about the conflict, which likely would have veered into politics and ideology. But Roth, a career educator who served in Israel’s military four decades ago, opted for a lighter touch: After all, the kids were here for fun, with the Israelis also hoping for a distraction from their reality.

“Just because the children of Israel are suffering doesn’t mean the children here should suffer as well,” he told JTA. “But they should be informed. Next to the fun, there is something going on outside this camp.”

He decided to act only upon requests — and requests have come in. The older campers, especially those with relatives living in Israel and with limited Internet access in camp, asked Roth for updates. He began monitoring the news and giving updates, sometimes several a day.

Some campers also asked for a discussion of borders and missiles and their reach, so Roth responded with presentations, maps and technical descriptions of Katyusha rockets. Roth says he has been careful to steer clear of politics.

“I have my opinion, but I keep that to myself,” he said. “What I tell them are facts. That 1 million Israelis were in shelters is a fact. That some 1 million fled their homes, that’s a fact. That Hezbollah is a terrorist organization is also a fact.”

Several Szarvas campers say they appreciated the firsthand Israeli perspective, accusing media back home of focusing on Lebanese victims.

“The television shows what Israel is doing in Lebanon, not what’s happening to Israel; we get the idea that Israel should be blamed for everything,” says Nora Vrieler, 14, a Dutch-Hungarian from Amsterdam.

She added that the camp had struck an appropriate balance.

“We should learn what’s happening in Israel, as we’re all Jews,” she said. “But we’re also all kids and here to have fun with each other.”

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