Asher Fredman decided to go to Camp Szarvas last summer because he wanted to help young Eastern European Jews learn about Judaism. In the end, he found he learned just as much from them as they did from him.
“I thought it would be teaching underprivileged children to read Hebrew,” said Fredman, who attends a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Manhattan.
“It was more like hanging out and learning about their lives, and telling them about mine.”
The camp — its full name is the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/AJJDC International Camp in Szarvas, Hungary — was set up soon after the fall of the Communist bloc to help foster Jewish identity in Eastern European children.
“It’s an educational experience, but it’s more than that,” said Jody Guralnik, who directs the Central and Eastern Europe desk at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “It’s also a tool for community development.”
The JDC believes it’s money well spent.
“Ten years ago, a lot of community leadership didn’t see a future 10 or 20 years down the road for Jewish communities in Eastern Europe,” Guralnik said. “Now there’s a sense that a lot of these Jewish communities are here to stay.”
One camper from Romania even went on to become a cantor, Guralnik said. As for the others, “there’s no question that they go on to become educators.
“We’ve seen again and again that the people who attend Szarvas” — pronounced Sar-VASH — “naturally become leaders in their home communities,” Guralnik said.
Ben Reis, who runs a separate educational program for Americans at the camp, said he was profoundly affected by watching children from post-Communist nations learn about Judaism for the first time.
“You realize that many come from backgrounds with little or no opportunities for Jewish life, and somehow someone from their home country found out about them and facilitated their arrival at the camp,” Reis said.
“Now they’re walking through the camp singing these Hebrew songs to themselves because they love them. And you see them walking around with this glow on their faces,” he continued. “I realized at that point that the camp is really successful.”
Besides helping to fund the camp in Szarvas, the JDC also funds several regional Jewish education programs in post- Communist Eastern Europe, including religious education programs, weekend educational seminars and local Jewish summer camps.
But, Guralnik said, Szarvas is “the only really international summer camp.”
The camp has had participants from 24 different countries, the bulk of them in Eastern Europe.
U.S. teens have been attending the camp as “American Ambassadors” since 1999, and this year the program is recruiting teens from Canada as well.
The Lauder Foundation administers the American program with the help of the JDC. The foundation hopes to recruit 60 teens representing the diversity of American Jewry, in terms of religious observance and geography.
The addition of teens from Western countries has been good for campers from both sides of the Atlantic.
The American students — along with teens from Israel and France — lead by example, helping the Eastern Europeans develop a Jewish identity and learn about Jewish religion and culture.
At the same time the American students have an international Jewish experience, forming friendships with kids from other countries, touring Budapest and gaining a new perspective on Judaism by seeing it through newcomers’ eyes.
“You meet these kids who have such a love for life and for Judaism,” said Sima Greenbaum, 17, a New York high school junior who attended the camp in 2000 and hopes to return this summer. “After spending 13 years in a yeshiva, another Judaism lesson isn’t so exciting. But seeing them get excited, excited me.”
After seeing a video about the camp, Linda White decided to convince the Lauder Foundation three years ago to let American teens participate in the camp.
“When kids go to Israel or a U.S. summer camp they meet kids from Florida and New York. Szarvas gives them the experience of watching kids their age sing and dance and learn about what its like to be Jewish,” White said.
The teens return to America with “a core identity of Jewish peoplehood,” she said.
Meeting children with almost no Jewish education also gave the Americans a renewed appreciation for Jewish practices that had become routine to them, White said.
“Things that the American kids take for granted become a blessing,” she said.
Such was the case for Greenbaum. Seeing the Eastern European children work so hard “to just perform a mitzvah,” she said, “made me feel a new sense of accomplishment every time I performed a simple mitzvah.”
Asher Friedman had a similar experience. “When you see everyone else wearing tzitzit you just want to throw them off, but when you see that other people don’t have them you realize that it’s a special thing,” he said.
To many campers, the international friendships they formed were the most potent part of the experience.
“I never realized that a bond could form so fast and be so strong,” said C.J. Edelman, 18, of Kansas City, Kan. “If any of these kids got into a jam I’d jump on a plane and help them out. It’s my duty now.”
Many of the American teens found that meeting their Eastern European counterparts also increased their appreciation for American religious tolerance.
Touring Budapest, Greenbaum was shocked to hear the hotel owner warn her to hide any signs of Judaism.
“Living in New York you don’t see” anti-Semitic violence, “and you kind of think its done and over with, but it’s not,” she said.
Greenbaum also was surprised at how easily the participants, even tough teenage boys, seemed to lose their inhibitions and dive head-first into camp activities.
“The kids would be running in the dining hall singing and dancing. The spirit was just amazing. I jumped right into the ruach of it,” said Sam Starr, 18, of Rockville Md., using the Hebrew word for spirit.
Starr, who attended the camp last summer, remembers that the singing and dancing lasted for three and a half hours on his first night at the camp.
“It was nice — amazing,” he said. “You grab a little girl’s hand and you just enjoy.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.