Hungarian teen program isnt your average summer camp

NEW YORK — Asher Fredman decided to go to Camp Szarvas because he wanted to help young Eastern European Jews learn about Judaism. In the end, he found he learned just as much from them as they did from him.

"I thought it would be teaching underprivileged children to read Hebrew," said Fredman, who attended the camp in 2001.

"It was more like hanging out and learning about their lives, and telling them about mine."

The camp — its full name is the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/ AJJDC International Camp in Szarvas, Hungary — was set up soon after the fall of the Communist bloc to help foster Jewish identity in Eastern European children.

Two groups of Jewish teens will travel to Hungary this summerwith sessions running June 26 to July 11 and July 24 to Aug. 8.

"It's an educational experience, but it's more than that," said Jody Guralnik, who directs the Central and Eastern Europe desk at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "It's also a tool for community development."

The AJJDC believes it's money well spent.

"Ten years ago, a lot of community leadership didn't see a future 10 or 20 years down the road for Jewish communities in Eastern Europe," Guralnik said. "Now there's a sense that a lot of these Jewish communities are here to stay."

One camper from Romania even went on to become a cantor, Guralnik said. As for the others, "there's no question that they go on to become educators.

"We've seen again and again that the people who attend Szarvas" — pronounced Sar-VASH — "naturally become leaders in their home communities," Guralnik said.

Ben Reis, who runs a separate educational program for Americans at the camp, said he was profoundly affected by watching children from post-Communist nations learn about Judaism for the first time.

"You realize that many come from backgrounds with little or no opportunities for Jewish life, and somehow someone from their home country found out about them and facilitated their arrival at the camp," Reis said.

"Now they're walking through the camp singing these Hebrew songs to themselves because they love them. And you see them walking around with this glow on their faces," he continued.

Besides helping to fund the camp in Szarvas, the JDC also supports several regional Jewish education programs in post-Communist Eastern Europe, including religious education programs, weekend educational seminars and local Jewish summer camps.

But, Guralnik said, Szarvas is "the only really international summer camp."

The camp has had participants from 24 different countries, the bulk of them from Eastern Europe.

U.S. teens have been attending the camp as "American Ambassadors" since 1999, and teens are recruited from Canada as well.

The Lauder Foundation administers the American program with the help of the JDC. The foundation hopes to recruit 60 teens representing the diversity of American Jewry, in terms of religious observance and geography.

The addition of teens from Western countries has been good for campers from both sides of the Atlantic.

The American students — along with teens from Israel and France — lead by example, helping the Eastern Europeans develop a Jewish identity and learn about Jewish religion and culture.

At the same time the American students have an international Jewish experience, forming friendships with kids from other countries, touring Budapest and gaining a new perspective on Judaism by seeing it through newcomers' eyes.

"You meet these kids who have such a love for life and for Judaism," said New Yorker Sima Greenbaum, who attended the camp in 2000 and 2002. "After spending 13 years in a yeshiva, another Judaism lesson isn't so exciting. But seeing them get excited, excited me."

After seeing a video about the camp three years ago, Linda White decided to convince the Lauder Foundation to let American teens participate.

"Szarvas gives them the experience of watching kids their age sing and dance and learn about what it's like to be Jewish," White said.

Meeting children with almost no Jewish education also gave the Americans a renewed appreciation for Jewish practices that had become routine to them, White said.

"Things that the American kids take for granted become a blessing," she said.

Such was the case for Greenbaum. Seeing the Eastern European children work so hard "to just perform a mitzvah," she said, "made me feel a new sense of accomplishment every time I performed a simple mitzvah."

Many of the American teens found that meeting their Eastern European counterparts also increased their appreciation for American religious tolerance.

Touring Budapest, Greenbaum was shocked to hear the hotel owner warn her to hide any signs of Judaism.

"Living in New York you don't see" anti-Semitic violence, "and you kind of think it's done and over with, but it's not," she said.

Greenbaum also was surprised at how easily the participants, even tough teenage boys, seemed to lose their inhibitions and dive head-first into camp activities.

"The kids would be running in the dining hall singing and dancing. The spirit was just amazing. I jumped right into the ruach of it," said Sam Starr, of Rockville Md., using the Hebrew word for spirit.