After traveling the Jewish world with UJC MetroWest and the Jewish Federations of North America, I think there’s a Jewish connection almost anywhere in the world. My recent trip with my husband to Budapest, Vienna and Prague was additional proof of my theory. Knowing that we would be learning about the tragic portions of the Jewish story in Central Europe, I made plans to see Jewish life as it is today in Budapest (and in Prague, but you’ll have to wait for that part!). I made arrangements to visit Balint House Jewish Community Center, which is located in the part of Budapest that has long been home to the Jewish community. Picture a town house version of our JCC in West Orange and you will have Ballint House. There are staff offices and conference rooms on the top floor, where we met Zsofia, the thirty-something year old co-director of adult programming, who gave us our tour. The two conference rooms are divided with movable walls. One room is named “Matzah” and the other is “Ball” – so when the walls are moved back….Matzah Ball!
The main floor has a multipurpose room that serves as a theater, exercise room and exhibition hall. Zsofia was very proud of the exhibition which had just opened, photographs of Roma men and women dressed as characters in famous paintings. The exhibit is meant to demonstrate that the Roma, who were killed in great numbers in the Holocaust and who are facing grave prejudice throughout Europe right now, are people like everyone else – as much an exhibit about human rights as about photography and art. There is also a café on the first floor, with booths and tables and chairs, just like in West Orange. The bottom floor is the gym, workout room, sauna and massage facilities. It felt very familiar! In fact, the Shalom Seniors group was having a card game, with cakes and coffee and tea, just like my friends at the Margulies Senior Center.
When we sat in the café area to talk with Zsofia, I asked her how she came to work at the JCC. I was not surprised, but still very moved to find out that she had been a camper at Camp Szarvas, a camp sponsored by the Ronald Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (commonly referred to as “the Joint” or the JDC.) Zsofia then became a madricha, a counselor, moved on to become the head madricha, and then the trainer of all of the madrichim. Eventually, after university, the JCC came looking for her and offered her the position at Balint House. I wasn’t surprised that her time at Camp Szarvas had made such an impact on Zsofia’s life, because I’ve heard so many wonderful stories about the Jewish summer camps run throughout the former Soviet Union and its satellites by our overseas partners and the lasting impact they have on the children who attend them. But I was moved because of the way Zsofia described her feeling about Camp Szarvas. She said that when she arrived at Szarvas, with the barest knowledge about what it meant to be Jewish, “I felt like I was home.” I was moved because I knew exactly what Zsofia meant, being home at camp. That’s how I always felt about Camp Young Judea in Amherst, New Hampshire. It’s how so many of our New Jersey Y campers, and our kids at Camp Ramah and at other Jewish camps feel. It’s the universal feeling of not just learning Jewish but living Jewish and which is why so many studies say that a Jewish camp experience is a crucial factor in creating lasting Jewish identity.
Our visit to Balint House was a charming and moving experience. It reminded me that we keep Jewish life flourishing all over the world through our support of the Joint and the Jewish Agency for Israel. It proved how alike we are, whether we speak English, Hebrew or Hungarian (I think I might have more luck at learning Hebrew than Hungarian!) The seniors at Balint House and at the Margulies Senior Center deserve our respect and a place to gather and socialize. Our children should all be afforded the opportunity to enjoy the meaningful experience of Jewish camp – whether through the funding of the Joint or the Camperships that come through our own Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
We are all connected to, and responsible for, one another. Now that the fall Jewish holidays are over, the UJA campaign season is truly underway. The best way to keep our connections strong and vital is through your gift to the Annual UJA Campaign.
If you want to learn more about Camp Szarvas and read about the experiences of American teens who have been there, please go to www.szarvas.org
Thank you for being connected, and for living generously!