Am Yisrael Chai!
Rabbi Daniel Septimus. Credit: Nicole Kirksey
Just a few weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege to participate on the 2018 Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) FRD Leadership Mission to Berlin and Budapest. Dan Kraus, Jill May and Heilla Lain, all active Shalom Austin leaders joined me on the trip along with over 150 other community leaders from North America. Three generations after the Holocaust and 30 years since the fall of Communism, it is hard to believe that there is a resurgence of Jewish life taking place in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The purpose of the trip was to learn how our collective overseas support is making an impact on helping others live their best Jewish lives through our historic partners, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Jewish Agency and World ORT.
Ten percent of the Shalom Austin Annual Campaign is committed to helping and supporting these types of Jewish experiences overseas.
Our delegation was confronted with many challenges and opportunities on this trip. As we listened to a panel presented by the partnership program between the JDC and Jewish Agency—which included a Holocaust survivor, and a second and third generation Holocaust survivor family—we began to understand the significance of this moment in Jewish history. Young adults and youth of today are taking it upon themselves to learn more about their Jewish heritage and are finding ways to engage meaningfully in Jewish life. There are still many challenges that these communities confront on a daily basis. However, the youth and young adults are ready to confront them head on.
As our buses approached the next stop – Szarvas Camp, two hours outside of Budapest, we did not know what to expect. Our buses entered the heavily fortified camp grounds, where we immediately felt a strong sense of familiarity and Jewish pride. The words bruchim habaim or “welcome” in Hebrew along with other signage and Jewish symbols throughout the camp immediately caught our attention. We knew at that moment that this was a thriving Jewish summer camp.
Well over 1,000 youth attend Szarvas Camp over the summer from countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. Like our youth in the U.S., they leave their mostly assimilated communities for an immersive Jewish experience that will change their lives by creating meaningful, enduring connections. While there are more than a dozen languages spoken in the summer camp, the one that binds them together is through Jewish songs and prayers in Hebrew.
The highlight of the visit was joining the entire camp for lunch. Each country shared pride in a song they created and sang at the top of their lungs, each in their native language. When they serenaded those celebrating birthdays, each represented country sang their version of happy birthday. I never felt the sense of ruach, or “spirit” that I experienced during lunch. I was brought to tears.
Thanks to our collective North American support and partnership with the JDC, we were able to plant the seeds and enable the leaders of Szarvas Camp to create a life-changing experience for all who attend.
As I departed Budapest to make my way home, k’lal yisrael, for me was palpable, a strong connection to Jews everywhere. I truly believe that this experience taught me how much more I gained from immersing myself in other Jewish communities than what we could provide in financial and resource assistance to them through our annual support. As I stood in the summer camp and as we joined together in many experiences throughout the trip, despite all the struggles and tragedies that our people have confronted, three words remained in my mind:
Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live!