Every summer, 1,500 Jewish campers from more than 20 countries attend Camp Szarvas in Hungary. Funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the camp’s mission is to create an opportunity for young Jews from around the world to meet, celebrate, and explore what Judaism means to them. Each session is comprised of campers from Eastern Europe, South America, parts of Asia and Africa, USA and Israel; and while their camp experiences are shared, they all take away something personal and unique.
Last month, Slavyan Kanovski, a 20-something young man from Sofia, Bulgaria, visited the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater with Sandy Katz, director of strategic relations with the JDC. While in Virginia Beach, Kanovski shared the impact that his summers as a camper and counselor at Camp Szarvas had on him and his family.
Raised by a single mother following the passing of his father when he was just nine years old, Kanovski learned he was Jewish when his grandfather suggested he and his brother enroll in a Jewish day school because the education and facilities were better due to outside funding. Kanovski’s grandfather had never spoken about or shared Jewish history, traditions, or culture because he was conditioned to hide his identity for so long. The combination of the Holocaust and Communism had created a climate in Eastern Europe where the expression of Judaism meant death or imprisonment.
During World War II, Jews like Kanovski’s grandfather were often isolated and betrayed by leaders of their resident countries. However, this was not the case in Bulgaria where the native community, despite the alliance between the Kingdom of Bulgaria and Germany, rose and convinced their king to not hand over their Jews for deportation and certain death. The Bulgarian Jews were, however, placed in work camps, had their homes confiscated, were prohibited from voting, holding office, and government positions, and from serving in the army—among other restrictions. At the end of the war, 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, the fourth largest group from Europe, emigrated to Israel—fleeing communist oppression. The remaining Bulgarian Jewish population, like those of other Eastern European Communist controlled nations, became known as the “Stolen Generation” and were left with little to no understanding of their Jewish identity.
Thanks to JDC scholarship funding, Kanovski connected with his Jewish identity at Camp Szarvas, where he learned to practice and celebrate his religion. Filled with his new information and fueled by a passion for his faith, Kanovski brought Judaica, such as his new Camp Szarvas Shabbat prayer book, home to his family, sharing his new knowledge. As a result, Kanovski was able to establish a continuity of Jewish identity his family had never known.
Through UJFT’s generous partnership with JDC, young Eastern European Jews like Kanovski are connecting with their Jewish identity through many programs, including Camp Szarvas, youth programming at the New Bucharest JCC, and summer camp in Cristain, Romania. Plus, the poorest Jews are living with dignity because Tidewater’s support provides essential services such as food, heat/electricity, home care visits, medicine, and more. Finally, these programs are creating a cadre of proud Jews prepared to lead in their home countries and communities and to love Israel.