In the summer of 2019, I went on a two week trip to Hungary with a group of 20 other American Jewish teens, to a camp called Szarvas. At Szarvas, I met other Jewish kids from Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Macedonia, Serbia, Israel, and more. We danced, laughed, talked, learned, ate, sang, and danced some more together. It was truly a life-changing experience.
My great grandmother fled Vienna, Austria, following Kristalnacht and came to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she started a completely new life. I thought about Great Grandma Renee often that summer, as I met and built close relationships with many kids whose grandparents or great grandparents experienced the exact same upheaval as mine—just without the fleeing part. My ancestry is so similar to their ancestry. I, an American Jew of Eastern European descent, very well could have been them.
But being an Eastern European Jew today means something very different than what it meant a century ago. What is the life of a modern Eastern European Jew like? I had only ever been taught about the destruction that occurred there in the past, and about the people and culture that made its way over to the US and Israel. I had never really thought about the Jews that are still there, and what modern Eastern European Judaism is.
One day I was talking to a boy my age from the Polish group. We were chatting about his tiny Jewish community. There are only two JCCs in all of Poland, and he has only one single Jewish friend. He then told me something that surprised me even more. He said that he did not find out that he was Jewish until he was eight years old. He was looking through boxes in the attic, when he found an old piece of paper revealing to him that his family is Jewish. My counselor told me this is extremely common. She had heard similar stories from other campers who did not find out they were Jewish until they were 10, 11, or 12 years old. And then somehow, they found Szarvas: an incredible haven of Jewish connection, togetherness, and community, truly coming from all four corners of the earth. Szarvas is a place where young isolated Jews discover the joy and community of Judaism.
Another moment that has stayed with me happened on one of our last days. The rabbi of the camp, Seth Braunstein, told the Americans that we would be attending a Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony that day. We didn’t really understand what that meant, until we saw the entirety of the Moldovan group walk into the synagogue dressed up in their finest attire—that is, their single, casual Shabbat outfit that they wore less than a week earlier to services. Rabbi Seth B’nai Mitzvahed 20 kids that day, most of them around the ages of 15, 16 or 17. The boys came up to the bimah one by one and wrapped tefillin for the first time, and the girls each gave a short dvar torah. For most of the Moldovans, Szarvas was their first exposure to practicing Judaism, and they had no idea how to react to this momentous occasion—they stood silently, looking a little embarrassed. We Americans knew, however, and we reacted like their proud grandparents, with tears. We did not understand a word of what anyone was saying, because it was all in Russian, but it did not matter one bit. Imagine: A group of American sixteen and seventeen year olds. Crying. At a bar mitzvah. Because it was so beautiful to watch our peers have the opportunity to declare their connection to Judaism.
At Szarvas, I made lifelong friends and experienced first-hand what worldwide Jewry looks like. I learned that Judaism is still living and breathing well beyond the US and Israel, even in places where many of us think it was long ago extinguished. I learned that Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) is truly international, though many of us often overlook that fact. I will carry this experience forward with me in my life, as I think about my own connection to Judaism as an American Jew. We should not forget the rest of the world when we think about the Jewish people. They need us, and we need them, in order to truly be a people, and a kehilah (a community). I also came to the realization this summer that Judaism, and the Jewish people, are resilient. Jews have survived and will continue to survive, by coming together all over the world. If Jews who are completely isolated from the wider Jewish community can survive in all of these disparate places, than we too can survive, despite a new and frightening wave of Anti-semitism in our country.
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