People tend to look at me quizzically when I tell them about my travels to Central and Eastern Europe.
I’ve got a strong Jewish identity — married to a Conservative rabbi, attending synagogue weekly, big fan of Fran Drescher — and they often start by asking me, “So you’re touring concentration camps there, right? Maybe a cemetery?”
No, I tell them. In fact, I’ve never been to a concentration camp.
But I have been to dozens of resurgent Jewish communities in the region, a somewhat hidden and unlikely phenomenon given the Holocaust and legacy of Communism in this part of the world.
What are Jews, especially young ones, doing staying put in these places where so many of their ancestors were murdered by the Nazis and where survivors were oppressed by a 70-year regime intent on erasing them from history? Why stay today, of all times, in the face of growing anti-Semitism, political extremism, and terrorism?
I found the answer in rural Hungary, more than 100 miles from Budapest, at the bar mitzvah celebration of a 15-year-old from Ukraine.
Feeling just as proud as I would if a sibling or cousin had reached that milestone, I beamed at Ilya Tolstolytkin, who I had met months earlier at a gathering of Jewish teens from across the former Soviet Union.
I thought back to my first conversation with him: We spoke for an hour, and I found myself inspired by the energy of this young man, a symbol of the blossoming of Jewish life in his part of the world.
Ilya’s a counselor for his city’s Jewish teen club and his mom works at one of its Jewish preschools. His grandparents and great-grandmother receive food, medicine, and other support from my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
And here he now was, deep in the Hungarian woods on the banks of the Koros River, chanting Hebrew at the synagogue of Szarvas, the international Jewish summer camp founded in 1990 by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and JDC.
I arrived at the sanctuary just in time to see Ilya sing a song and receive a blessing from Budapest rabbi Tamás Vero under a large tallit.
Ilya’s friends showered him with candy; they clapped and cheered and danced around the room.
To those of us who grew up with the bunks, swimming pools, and dining halls in the summer sleep-away camps of upstate New York, the Poconos, and elsewhere, Szarvas may look familiar. But its campers are something else.
Each year, some 1,600 Jewish kids from all over – Croatia, Poland, Moldova, India, Turkey, the U.S., Israel, and more – descend on Szarvas for four two-week sessions.
Among them, I met Rebeka Mucheva, a 24-year-old from Skopje, Macedonia, which is home to just 250 Jews. Each session at the camp, there are more Jews at breakfast than in her entire country.
I caught up with Miriam Rosenţvaig, who teaches English at Bucharest’s Jewish kindergarten and coordinates teen programming for its Jewish community center. Miriam is 29 and now the head of the camp’s Romania delegation. But each summer when she returns to Szarvas, she feels like Harry Potter when he got that letter from Hogwarts: lucky, amazed, chosen.
I spoke with Sasha Friedman, the former camper born in Soviet Ukraine who grew up in Hungary and took over Szarvas at just 22. He’s still a camper at heart, smitten with this place and the raw potential he sees etched on each camper’s face and among the 25,000+ camp alumni from more than 30 countries, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in Jewish communities the world over.
Meals at Szarvas are something wild. As the kids finish eating, someone stands on a chair and starts to scream out a cheer. Suddenly the room erupts — Hungarians, Serbians, Slovaks, Spaniards, kids who grew up in the community and kids who just recently found out they were Jewish, all dancing and laughing and shouting and so, so glad to be there.
I got a little teary when I spotted a young boy who I’d met in Romania two years ago sitting on top of a counselor’s shoulders and beaming. When I first photographed him sitting on his grandmother’s lap at the Bucharest JCC, one of the staff shared with me his sad story — a challenging home life, one absent parent, a struggle to make ends meet. I never imagined I’d see him in this context.
Mah Tovu, the lovely song Ilya sang at his bar mitzvah, comes from the moment in the Bible when the prophet Balaam is recruited by a local king to curse the Jewish people.
He arrives at the Israelites’ camp fully intending to excoriate them, but what emerges from his mouth is only blessing: “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
I think the power of Szarvas is baked right into Mah Tovu.
It’s a place of endless Jewish opportunity about two hours from the banks of the Danube in Budapest where thousands of Jews were shot into the river’s waters seven decades ago.
Beyond its explosive joy, its multilingual mealtimes, the lifelong friendships, and even marriages that begin on its grounds, it’s that there exists a place where so many only saw curses and some dared to find blessing.
Alex Weisler, a former journalist, is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s digital content producer.