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Visiting Summer Camp, Szarvas

After spending two glorious weeks in Tel Aviv, relaxing, catching up on work, and living the dream a bit. It was time to get back on the road, briefly. One of the things that had been on my list since my first weeks with JDC was the idea of getting to visit Szarvas camp. So I had planned a trip to spend two days at camp, and then was able to pick up another project in Budapest.

While looking back on this quick, less than one week trip, so many elements of it went “wrong”. Not dramatically wrong, lots of things were just a little off. These things like plane delays, closed coffee shops/restaurants you look forward to, and other undramatic missteps made me recognize 1) how resilient and calm I’ve become as delays and travel frustrations happen and 2) how really ready I was to be done with this type of "on the go" travel for a bit.

My flight to Budapest was delayed by about an hour, but as is my luck the delay happened while boarded on the bus to take us to the plane. So we stood on the bus for about an hour to wait for some unknown reason for the four minute drive to the plane. Super fun. Upon arrival in Budapest I needed to get to the bus station in order to catch a bus to the small town where Camp Szarvas is located – called, Szarvas.

I made it to the bus station at 4:07 pm to make the 4:14 pm bus, in which I knew would be a 3.5 hour bus ride. I was able to grab a bottle of water before getting onto the bus just in time – thank goodness I had saved a bit of Hungarian currency from my last trip as they only took cash and I hadn’t had time to stop for money. I got onto the bus and was able to take a breath knowing I made it and was on my way through the Hungarian countryside. What I quickly realized and thankfully before I downed the liter of water, is that it was pretty unclear if there would be an opportunity to use a bathroom during the next few hours. There wasn’t. Exhausted I arrived in the town, and at my bed and breakfast where very little English was spoken. I decided to wait until morning to check out the camp.


I grew up going to day camp, and rose through the ranks until I graduated college and moved on. I often say that while Willoway was a day camp, for counselors it tended to function much like an overnight camp, but we got to sleep in our own beds (except for Thursday night overnights). I spent one summer at overnight camp, but have also spent years on years being friends with hordes of “camp people” and people often think I attended Tamarack (Jewish summer camp outside Detroit) for years – sorry, just the one. Anyway, this combined with my sister having been a camp director for years, I wanted to see what Szarvas looked like. Even more, throughout my travels this year, I’ve heard a ton about the experience from former campers, and leaders in communities whose Jewish identities were shaped by this place.

Some notes about what happens and what is different at Szarvas. This camp was created by JDC in the 1990’s as an opportunity to give kids in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union the opportunity to go to Jewish summer camp. Today, Szarvas brings together youth from all over the world, a place where for some kids, it is the first time they are exposed to being together in a space with this many Jews, a space where they can proudly decide to wear a kippah or not, where they can discover what being Jewish means to them as an individual, and where, like all camps, they can let loose and have fun!

Over the year I heard some stories of individual experiences campers have had. One which sticks out, and while it may not be the case so much any more, were those whose parents dropped them off at the buses for camp, and only then told their child they were going to a Jewish summer camp, because they in fact are Jewish. Then off they went! While seemingly dramatic it gives you a sense that for many campers Szarvas becomes the place where the seed is planted for their Jewish identities. Where being Jewish begins.

A Day in the Life

Camp is still camp at Szarvas, but there is an incredible amount of intention mixed into the typical activities. Each morning announcements are done in at least seven languages. Every summer has a theme in which Jewish culture is explored throughout the summer. Groups are split by country. While the groups interact with one another, and it’s definitely an opportunity for kids to improve their English, meet Jews from other countries and connect on many levels, there is intention behind building these groups as individual countries.

Why? So these kids can go back to their home communities and form their own networks, and build their communities. Camp only lasts the summer, for these kids, two weeks. The idea that they can continue these bonds at home and connect more locally is important. In some of these communities you can actually see the outcome of this intention as you see young leaders in communities, who have grown up through Szarvas and go on to be Jewish communal leaders.

One thing that sticks out from my experience, was observing a team-building low ropes session with a group from Budapest. The facilitator spoke both English and Hebrew, the campers all spoke Hungarian, a few knew some English, and a few spoke a little Hebrew. The counselors serve as translators throughout the time at camp. However to watch this group figure out and reflect on trying to use ropes to move a bowling ball, was incredible. The facilitator not only had to manage the group dynamics in multiple languages – one of which he didn’t speak, but also figure out the right ways to communicate with the campers. It was complicated, but all in the day in the life of an international camp.

During each session there is one group of American teens and groups of Israelis. American’s need to apply to attend the camp, and for them while the majority of the experience is the same, they spend a bit more of the educational time thinking about and discussing Jewish identity. The experience is able to highlight and expose Americans to global Jewry. For Israeli’s it’s also an opportunity to learn about Jewish life in the Diaspora, to connect with Judaism in a different way. I spoke with one young woman, a counselor from Israel who had just finished up a year of service in Hungary and she spoke about how it took leaving Israel and experiencing camp and other communities for her to understand what Judaism could mean and look like. We had a long conversation about Israel, identity, and Jewish life.

Needless to say it was a great visit, and opportunity to see a program in action. I have other thoughts about camp and it's benefits – in an essay to come. But there is much to be learned from the impact of camp, so many of the seeds that are planted at summer camp are truly the future of our Jewish communities.

My bus ride back to Budapest was much more pleasant, allowing me to join a mission of lovely people from the Baltimore Federation. The rest of my time in Budapest was spent working on another project more detailed in a different post, but interviewing grantees of small grants provided by a department of JDC.

Oh, and by the way my travels continued with my flight back to Israel delayed, on a Friday, which is not great when flying into Tel Aviv, since much of the public transportation stops in preparation for Shabbat. But I made it. I was excited to land back in Israel, and potentially more excited that I’d be able to fully unpack my bag for a month. It’s the little things…

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