The rebirth of Eastern European Jewry

By Mike Diamond

We Jews have survived with our religion essential intact as a people for over 3000 years. Whether that is the world’s record is not the issue. it is certainly something remarkable, something special, something worthy of study and perhaps pride.

Jewish Continuity– that was the theme of the educational programs at the Jewish Camp in Szarvas Hungary that my son Ari visited and worked within this summer. I recently wrote about our visit to this article I will take you beyond Budapest to what I have started to call the New Diaspora- the new emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union- communities arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the emptiness and grey lives of Communism. Out of this double whammy is arising a new group of young, committed Jews by desire, in essence a new piece of the Diaspora that we need to notice, not because of its numbers, which are still relatively small, but because it exists at all under the circumstances.

You could see the New Diaspora with visits to a number of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe- whether to Hungary, Belarus, Poland, the Baltic States, Croatia, Serbia, or even as far away as India. Or you can spend a week or more at the JDC/Lauder camp in Szarvas Hungary, where almost 2000 Jewish youth gather in each summer from 23 countries all under one roof, in one facility. That is what my son Ari and I did, and we were not disappointed with what we saw and experienced.

Let me provide an interlude- an article we wrote for the Szarvas Camp newspaper which explains why we went to Szarvas Camp and what we learned from the experience�..

Szarvas as an adventure in being Jewish

Life is an adventure.� And to make our lives even more interesting and exciting, Ari and I decided to set out on a Jewish adventure- to visit Budapest and learn about the Jewish community there, and then come to camp at Szarvas where we could meet Jewish young people from all of Eastern Europe plus more!�

There is no place in the world like Szarvas. It is unique. Yes there are Jewish camps of various types all over the world, and there are Jewish multi-cultural experiences available in Israel. But Szarvas is more than that- it is young people from at least 23 countries. It represents the rebuilding of the Diaspora in this part of the world. And it is, more than anywhere and anytime since the formation of the State of Israel, a reflection of the ability of Judaism to survive and rebuild regardless of what adversities we have encountered as a people.

Ari and I knew all about the Holocaust and Communism. But we really did not fully understand the combined devastating effect of these two events of history on Judaism in Eastern Europe and Russia. Now we understand it well, having learned from you- the next generation that is demonstrating the courage and the belief and the desire to grab hold of what being Jewish has to offer and not let it go, regardless of the obstacles and challenges.

Like most Jews in North America, Ari and I both grew up in homes where it was easier to be Jewish for us than to be anything else. We were surrounded and supported in our Judaism by thousands of other Jews.

But compare our situation to that of most of you (at Szarvas) who are reading this article! Many of you have had no support from your families, and even worse, some have experienced a good deal of opposition from your families and the society around you in response to your choice to practice some form of Judaism.

For many of you here at Szarvas, camp is the best place and perhaps the only place where you can be as Jewish as you wish and have a good time doing so. Many of you are pioneers who have set out on a personal journey to learn about and be Jewish- either to meet your own needs and desires, or because you see a greater responsibility to the Jewish people, or both. For you, unlike in other parts of the world, being Jewish is a challenge because it is neither expected, nor rewarded in many cases.

We have been excited to see your courage to embrace Judaism despite those who disagree with your decisions.� We have been encouraged to see the number of young people embracing Judaism for the first time, whether they are from Jewish backgrounds or not, and then sharing that passion and belief with other young people. We have enjoyed seeing terrific young people make personal choices to be Jewish in whatever way makes sense for them. All of that happens at Szarvas. it is on display in all of its glory.

It happens at pre-camp with an incredible group of young leaders from at least 23 countries. And it continues throughout the summer as those young leaders are joined by hundreds of younger future leaders from around this part of the world, plus the US and India, and now a bit of Canada, to make things even more interesting and fun. Coming to Szarvas has exceeded both of our expectations (Ari and I); the amount of information we learned will allow us to be spokespeople in North America for not only the camp, but for the wonderful rebuilding efforts taking place in Eastern Europe and Russia. Thank you for your hospitality and for sharing this most special place with us!

There is a purity in Szarvas in being Jewish, even peripherally, that one does not see except among the very young in our own society. Perhaps the purity comes from the fact that being Jewish in the Szarvas environment is a clear, essentially emotional, choice. Perhaps it comes from the fact that the power in the camp environment rests with the young, the 17-25 year old staff who run the camp in their own enthusiastic manner. Or perhaps it comes from the motives of these young people who are choosing to be Jewish at one level or another, not because they must be to be accepted, but rather in spite of the lack of acceptance, because they like it, it rings true, it makes sense, it works for them.

The staff at the camp is comprised of good kids, hard working, there for a reason, intent on succeeding, and bright and capable. They accept each other, support each other, and respond well to the demands of a 12-day camp where so much is expected, indeed needed.� To say the experience was uplifting was an understatement.� And it was enormously satisfying and a lot of fun. But beyond the pure fun of it all, is the excitement of being part of something that is building, something that that has as a foundation the pure motives that can only come from people who have made their own choice to be involved, to care, to achieve, to build. This is perhaps the only part of the world which is building, indeed rebuilding, its Jewish roots and foundation. And building is so much more rewarding than maintaining.

When our young people go on the March of the Living, the implication is that the first half of the trip in Eastern Europe is the time of death, of the Holocaust, of emptiness, of pain. Then follows Israel, the place of rebuilding. But perhaps we need to reorient our thinking now to accommodate the new reality of the stirrings of the rebirth in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Perhaps what is to be celebrated is not just the birth of a strong Israel, but the beginnings of a New Diaspora arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust.� There are many lessons to be learned today in Eastern Europe of the value and values of being Jewish, lessons that are not so obvious in our relatively easy world of the Older Diaspora where we restructure instead of build, where we argue about design instead of building anew, where we jealously guard our power and influence instead of using what power and influence we have to create a stronger community. These young people at Szarvas are like the Jewish pioneers in the early days of Israel. We still celebrate the accomplishments of those pioneers. Today we have a new generation of pioneers, centralized at least once a year in Szarvas, who have a lot to learn but also a lot to teach all of us.

July 11, 2007 | Comments Off on The rebirth of Eastern European Jewry

Subscribe to Israpundit Daily Digest