The Importance of Eastern Europe’s Jewish Present

August 28, 2012

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


Gavin Beinart-Smollan tells how his two week stint as a counselor for the Szarvas Fellowships at Camp Szarvas in Hungary changed his perceptions of modern Judaism in Eastern Europe. His encounter with Jewish kids and youth leaders from across Eastern Europe involved in creating and living their Jewish identities changed the picture of Jewish existence in modern Eastern Europe presented to him in his previous organized trips to Poland.


He writes:

"My perception of Eastern European Jewry took a 180-degree turn when I was accepted as a counselor for the Szarvas Fellowships earlier this summer. The Fellowships take a group of American teenagers to Camp Szarvas in Hungary. The camp, founded in 1990 after the fall of Communism, is supported by the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. It attracts over 1500 participants, the majority of them young Eastern European Jews, to three sessions over the summer.


When I stepped into the dining hall on the first day and was confronted with hundreds of Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Serbian, Croatian, Albanian (and American and Israeli) Jewish kids singing Hebrew songs at the top of their lungs, dancing to Hava Nagila and chanting Birkat HaMazon in unison, I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Where were the three old Jewish men of Krakow, the lonely remnant of Eastern European Jewry? Hadn’t everyone else been wiped out or otherwise assimilated into oblivion by 50-odd years of Nazism and Communism?


In the two weeks I was there I didn’t come across my three old men. Instead, I saw Jewish kids, teens and 20-somethings, just like the ones I know from home, celebrate and explore their Jewish identity together, educate and be educated, meet one another and generally have a great time painting, biking, swimming and canoeing like their summer-camping counterparts across the rest of the Jewish world. Szarvas serves as an incubator for Jewish life across the region: people grow up in the camp, moving from campers to counselors to unit heads to leaders in their respective communities, planning and running a whole host of new initiatives to involve young Jews in Jewish life….


The Jewish professional world is starting to plan its tours to Eastern Europe in light of these realities, and the readers of this blog are familiar with the many new Jewish initiatives setting up shop across the region. But this awareness has not trickled down to our teen tours, at least not as a given. Most tours still focus on the Holocaust and Jewish life before the war, but pay little attention to Eastern European Jewry today. I believe that our tours need to give weight to both. On a fundamental level, making this change is about intellectual honesty, and about treating our students and teen participants like the mature young adults that they are. Instead of giving them a narrow, one-sided experience that is highly mediated by our own top-down and ideologically-driven goals, we should expose our teens to the full picture of Eastern European Jewry: both its past and its present. All sides will be enriched by the result."


Read his full post on eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Sep. 12, 2012