Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In the second of several travelogue entries, he shares his impressions and insights:
Budapest – Day 2
Just got back from the day at Szarvas and I have a few moments before we have Kabbalat Shabbat.
This morning we began the day at the Shoes Memorial on the Danube Promenade. This memorial is 'bronzed' shoes in various positions representing the hundreds of Jews who were shot to death and thrown into the Danube River by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian pro-Nazi militia. To Hungarian Jews, this single act represented a total rejection of the Jews belief that they had been totally emancipated and accepted by the Hungarian people as full members of society. Again, this is an ongoing theme of the past two days, that Hungarian Jewry believed that they were safe in Hungary, having fought and died for Hungary in World War I, but learned otherwise in the 1940's.
Next came a long drive to Szarvas camp. On the way we heard about JDC's goals in Hungary: Renewal, Revival and Rebuilding. JDC serves 5,300 holocaust survivors and 900 children at risk. A big role is providing home heating subsidies in the winter. 1,400 individuals receive kosher daily meals, but everything is meant to be a partnership. All who receive assistance are expected to pay something or give something in return.
The best way to think about Szarvas Camp is through stories of people who have gone there.
Lela is from Macedonia. She is from a town of 200 Jews who got together every Friday night for dinner at the Jewish Center. For these Macedonians, Shabbat and Jewish holidays was a meal, not a holiday. At age 11 her family sent her to Szarvas where she learned that Judaism is more than a meal. The camp was/is twelve days of immersion in living Jewishly. Many of these kids return home changed and feeling Jewish and wanting to be Jewish and wanting to come back the following year. Lela now works for JDC and is based in Budapest.
Sondra is from Serbia and has been coming to Szarvas since 1991, first as a camper, then a madricha and now a unit leader. Her mother brought her to Szarvas when the camp in Zagreb closed. For Sondra, this was the first time she felt what it is like to live in a Jewish environment. Now she always looks for a job that will allow her to spend her summers at Szarvas, first as a teacher at a Jewish day school until she was downsized and now as a translator. Szarvas defines her Jewish life and it is a priority in her life.
Arten is originally from Moscow, but made Aliyah last year and is back at Szarvas for the summer. He too is back this year on staff. For him being Jewish began for him in 2000 when he first came to camp. He still remembers his first Shabbat. When all the campers are together in the 'square', they write their wishes on a piece of paper which are then attached to balloons and are then released into the air. Upon his return to Moscow he attended his first Rosh Hashanah service in Moscow. All because he spent 12 days in Hungary.
Szarvas draws campers from some 20 countries, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU. In past years, there were 4 sessions and thus 2,000 campers each summer. Due to budget cuts at JDC and due to smaller overseas allocations, this year there will be only 2 sessions, only 1,000 campers. What this means is that the priority is to take campers from Hungary and new campers. What this means is Arten and Sondra and Lela might not have been able to attend if they were just now trying to attend.
For these young adults there were no alternatives for being exposed to being Jewish. What we are seeing is that it is the young who are teaching the old about being Jewish. This is something we will also be seeing when we meet with Ethiopian Jews in Israel, a new generation of Jews living jewishly.
It is amazing to see the differences we are making in the work we do.