This article appeared in the February 21, 2010 Jewish Advocate.
Photo captions: "The Szarvas camp is home for over 2,000 kids and teens (ages 7-18) every summer"
Girl walking with balloons- "Shabbat at camp is an extremly powerful experience for the campers and staff"
Candles- "participants from 24 different countries are united around Jewish ceremonies such as Havdalah"
Additional photos of Camp Szarvas supplied by Rabbi Braunstein:
Other photos of the camp:
Beloved European summer camp faces challenges
By Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate
Jewish campers have always been known for their fierce loyalty to their favorite camp and those from Camp Szarvas are no exception.
Szarvas, which opened in 1990 and lies southeast of Budapest, is the largest Jewish summer camp in Eastern and Central Europe. Sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation (which seeks to rebuild Jewish life in areas devastated during the Holocaust and often subsequently oppressed by the Soviets as well) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it has hosted 2,000 kids each summer who hail from 20 to 25 countries - half from Hungary and the rest from Eastern Europe, the United States and Canada. But in response to the global economic crisis, the JDC announced last month that the camp would need to halve its sessions from four to two, and decrease international enrollment.
Within a few days, nearly 500 supporters signed onto a Save Szarvas Facebook group launched by former campers and counselors. Additionally, a Szarvas blog and fund-raising site run by former camper and counselor Andras Fehervari has drawn 2000 members. "We raised around $1000 in Budapest, and about the same in the States in December," reported Fehervari. A recent SuperSunday telethon netted pledges for another $1500. Yet he is not hopeful about their raising enough to restore the two sessions. "I would give it a 15 percent chance," he said.
It’s easy to see what would be missed. Kids choose the educational themes at the camp, which offers a kosher kitchen, an air-conditioned sports hall and an activity center that houses a synagogue, computer center and A/V studio. Campers also enjoy a swimming pool, arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing and lessons in Jewish history.
Maya Wolk, a Haifa resident who is the Israeli Unit Head at Szarvas, brings groups from Haifa to the camp each summer.
“This unique place gave me a real eye-opening experience, as it does every camper, counselor or unit head,” she said. “Suddenly, there is a whole Jewish world out there.” Wolk, who has worked with international teens for 12 years, is active in the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection and youth groups such as Teens for Tzedek and Maccabi Games. While conducting an Israel trip, she introduced the camp to Newton resident Joe Step, whose parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1990.
“I was excited about the opportunity to see Hungary and meet Jewish teenagers from other countries, especially Russia, because of my Russian lineage," said Step, who was the first in his family to be born in the U.S.
Another camper, Ariana Hershon of Marlborough , also discovered the camp through Wolk. “I learned so much about other people and places there, but I also learned a great deal about myself,” said Hershon. “I hung out with Russians, Romanians and Israelis.”
She said she still keeps in touch with many of the friends she made. “Not many teenagers get that experience,” she said.
Avi Small, a junior at Gann Academy in Waltham , chose the camp for its locale.
“My grandmother is originally from Hungary , and it was incredible to rediscover my roots as I found her old street in Budapest ,” he said.
Rabbi Seth Braunstein is the director of the Szarvas Fellowships, which selects students from the United States and Canada who apply with letters of recommendation and essays. Each year, about 50 students are chosen out of a pool of 100. Braunstein, who serves as a rabbinical presence at the camp, works year-round recruiting staff and preparing the educational curriculum year-round.
“Experiential Jewish education has such tremendous value that I have dedicated my life to it,” said Braunstein.
A native of the Bronx, Braunstein attended the Central Jewish Institute’s Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, N.J., where his parents were staff members. Before joining Szarvas in 2005, Braunstein had worked in Jewish education and leadership programs in Russia and Australia , among other nations.
“ Camp Szarvas has influenced and built a lot of the core of the Jewish leadership in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,” he said.
Wolk said Szarvas offers each camper a different experience.
“The magic of Szarvas is the same as the Wizard of Oz,” said Wolk. “Each person gets exactly what they need.”
For American teens, she said it is the opportunity to go back to the world of their great grandparents; for Israelis, it is a chance to realize their Jewish identity away from Israeli politics and social issues.
“For kids and teens from Europe , Szarvas is a positive Jewish experience that they might not be able to find elsewhere,” she said.
For example, Joe Step learned about the life of Russian youth and explored why his parents decided to move to the United States.
“I stopped seeing European Judaism as something that disappeared with the Nazis, and discovered a live, rich, beautiful and complicated community,” said Wolk of her own experience.
The thought of a downsizing, or even a closing, is clearly painful.
“Turning down a Jewish kid who is asking for Jewish education, a Jewish teen who wants to be involved, or a young adult who wants to become a leader, would be like slamming the door of your home in the face of a friend who is asking for help,” said Wolk.
For information on the Szarvas Fellowships, visit www.szarvas.org. On Facebook, search for "Save Szarvas". To contact Fehervari, email email@example.com or visit his blog at www.szarvasmifkad.eu.