Betsy O. Karotkin
Beth El’s Hazak event on Sunday, September 11, where Annie Sandler was the guest speaker, made me wonder whether the blessings of living in America can become curses. What I mean by that is we have so much freedom that we begin to take everything for granted. And somehow, what was once so prized by American Jews—the freedom to worship and explore our Jewish identity, for example— have lost their shine.
One place the freedom to be a Jew is not taken for granted is Eastern Europe. For many years under communism, Jewish children did not have opportunities to be together outside of their own small communities. And when it finally became safe to practice Judaism, people had lost their knowledge of it, their identity and traditions like Shabbat that have sustained Jews throughout the centuries. They needed help from outside their own communities if they were to survive.
Thanks to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)— and gifts to United Jewish Federation of Tidewater—and the very charitable Ron Lauder, a camp was born. Since 1990, Jewish youth in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Albania, Czech Republic and many other countries have had an opportunity to attend Szarvas, a camp in Hungary where young Jewish people can meet one another, explore their Jewish identity, and create lasting friendships.
Each summer, about 1,500 Jewish children—from six to 18 years of age— representing approximately 25 countries, attend Szarvas. Every year, the staff chooses a theme that is woven through the camp’s diverse activities. This summer the theme encouraged campers to think about what it means to have a “Jewish Home.”
Many of the young people receive scholarships, enabling them to attend. Our own Federation provides several of those scholarships, making it possible for Jewish children from Romania to be campers.
Annie Sandler told of her own experience bringing her children with her to Szarvas about 20 years ago when there was just the beginnings of a camp. While the Sandler children at first wondered why their mother had brought them there, by the end of the two-week period, they had a hard time parting from their new friends. It was a life-changing experience for all of them. Most importantly, the future leaders of the European Jewish community are being raised in Szarvas.
After Sandler’s excellent presentation, the Estee Lauder cosmeticians from Nordstrom demonstrated their newest products, giving makeovers to some lucky participants. Everyone went home with a free Estee lauder gift.
To be a friend and supporter of Szarvas, write to the camp director, firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the camp and the impact it has made on the lives of those who attended, click here. Photographs by Sharon Schloss.