If the title of this blog post doesn't resonate, I am not offended. BUT for those of you who sometimes remember that I am still living out here in Budapest presumably busy with some sort of thing or another, here is a little update to catch up to speed a little bit.
I confess that reopening this channel is daunting, because I have had many formative experiences in the last two months, and it is hard for me to imagine wrapping them up nicely in a blog post. That being said, I want to give a quick update on some of the highlights since I last blogged, just to keep the good folks at home assured that I'm still keeping busy and enjoying myself.
My last blog post is dated just days before Shavuot. Right before Shavuot, my good friend Aryeh, the JDC Fellow in Latvia, booked a flight to join me in Budapest for the long chag. This was a very exciting treat, and we enjoyed a dairy dinner together, followed by a stroll through the city, and then some singing and learning together. During Shavuot, our friends Shoshana and Adrian, JDC Fellows in Estonia and Finland respectively, joined the fun. We had a great time walking throughout the whole city on a beautiful spring day. I liked playing host/tour guide, but I also liked taking a step back to just enjoy having great company in a great city. When people asked me in the first few months of my fellowship how I liked living in Budapest, I answered timidly that it's a nice place and I love the community. I think I felt too much pressure to say that everything was perfect, when I very much still felt myself adjusting to life here. As the spring and summer months have come, and as my guest list has grown longer and longer, I find myself pinching myself when I realize how lucky I am to call this great city home for the year and share it with others.
Moishe House Retreat:
I have been very involved in Moishe House Budapest this year. I think I've mentioned it in previous posts, but Moise House is one of the most exciting new Jewish engagement programs around the world, addressing the needs of Jewish young adults who want to create Jewish community that feels meaningful and meets their needs in ways that many traditional institutions are unable. Moishe Houses have sprung up throughout the US, as well as throughout Europe and indeed around the world. Being a part of MH Budapest has given me a built-in network of awesome Jewish friends, and a venue for consistent Jewish programs. I do not take any of those things for granted. MH hosts retreats a few times a year, which aim to train and network their residents and community members. I was very fortunate to be able to attend a retreat in June outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. Sam (my roommate/"wife" also attended) which was very fun. The theme of the weekend was the home, and as much as I have learned the impossibility of defining this term this past year, I found that the topic is actually quite complex for many Europeans my age. It was quite interesting exploring the theme together, guided largely by guest-speaker Chaya Gilboa, who started the Hevruta program at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I led the Kabbalat Shabbat service, infused with song, poetry, and conversation surrounding the theme of the home. I used the notion of the Sukkat Shalom, a temporary home of peace, in the opening Yedid Nefesh prayer to guide the prayers. The retreat offered me an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn with, and get to know some really incredible people from around Europe. I also enjoyed the chance to see Sofia, which I found to be a very pretty city cradled amongst a backdrop of lovely mountains. The country also famously saved all of its Jews during the Shoah, and it was very special to have a glimpse into their community's history and contemporary landscape.
My time at Szarvas demands its own blog post, or many. But in the interest of getting people to speed, I'll offer a reflection now, just days removed from my time there.
For those who don't know, Camp Szarvas (pronounced "Sarvash") is an international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. Founded right after the collapse of the Communist regime, this camp has helped sustain and reinvigorate Jewish life for the recent generations of European Jewry like few other institutions have been able to do. The camp annually welcomes large delegations of campers from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Czech Republic & Slovakia (which still join as the "Czechoslovakia Group" at camp), various Balkan countries (which still join as the "Yugoslavia Group" at camp), Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Bulgaria, India, Germany the Baltics, Israel, the US, and more. Each group is equipped with their own cheers and traditions.
I love camp. Camp has defined much of my life and growth, and my camp experience was one of my largest credentials for receiving this Fellowship position. Jewish summer camp has been a reliable backbone of modern American Jewish communities, and a major pipeline into Jewish community and leadership. Exactly for those reasons, the Szarvas camp founders understood that a Jewish summer camp would be the best tool to revitalize Eastern European Jewish life, because it's content and program are effective and deep, and it targets specifically the next generation of Jews.
Camp Szarvas is also one of the crown jewels of the JDC, because it is such a successful program that bridges communities from around the world and brings them together for meaningful Jewish experiences together. The Szarvas Director was one of my interviewers for my job, and all year I have heard over and over how incredible Szarvas is, and what it means to the community in Hungary and beyond. Culminating my time here with time at Szarvas was incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.
At camp, most groups are composed of 10-20 campers of a particular age group from a particular country. For example, there might be a group of 15 Hungarian 7-10 year old campers in a group, with two madrichim responsible for them. However, there is one group each session called the International Group that is for 15-18 year olds with strong English, and campers from different countries join together in this group for a unique kind of experience. Some of these campers do not have groups from their country to join that session so they join International instead, and others are camp veterans who want a change and want to practice their English. I was at Szarvas for the first two sessions of the summer, each 12 days long, and I was the madrich for the International Group. It was a great fit and a perfect capstone on my yearlong experience, because I got to work in a setting in which I thrive (camp), speaking English and working with interesting and awesome European campers. Actually, half of my first session campers were Indian, and having these incredible campers, as well as getting to know the Indian madrichim who were at camp, was so special. First session, my group was 6 Hungarians, 5 Indians, and 2 Russians, and second session I had 3 Hungarians, a Pole, a German, 2 Slovaks, and an Israeli. The cultural exchange was fascinating and wonderful. We exercised immense curiosity, patience, and openness, and we became truly enriched by the others' perspectives and ideas.
Throughout the day, we rotate through a variety of programs, each day with a different schedule. Every day we have an hour at the swimming pool, an hour of 'Peulah,' during which the madrich presents a content-heavy session based on the theme of the summer (this summer's theme was Judaism & Time), and an hour of 'Madrich time,' which is time to hang out and play games. The other time slots can be filled with dance, art, singing, ropes course, sports, and a variety of other activities.
The wildest times of the day are always at meals, when the room shakes and echoes with cheers from different groups. Each country has a cheer proclaiming that it is in fact the greatest group at Szarvas, and it's a pretty crazy scene to behold as people stand on chairs and scream out their country pride. When people in the room have a birthday, they stand on a special brithday chair while each country takes turns enthusiastically singing their country's Happy Birthday song. Certain meals are "Happy Meals," which means that the camp musician plays a whole list of Jewish and Israeli songs in rapid succession, while everyone in the room circles the room dancing and hugging and high fiving.
During one Happy Meal, as Am Yisrael Chai played and the room burst with lively singing and dancing, I remember someone tapping my shoulder, although I do not remember who, and gesturing towards the room as if to say "Right there! Am Yisrael Chai -- The people of Israel are alive! Don't you see!" And indeed there they are. While separated by region and language, they are bound together by song, joy, and history.
Again, I could say much more about Szarvas, and perhaps I will. This reflection above only scratches the surface of the powerful memories that I am taking away from the summer. I will also try and include pictures and videos to help color the experiences I have described in writing.
In the meantime, I have a BBYO English day camp in Budapest this week, and it will be very nice to wrap up my year with BBYO-Hungary this way. In exactly one month from today, I fly home to Chicago! And then on August 31, I head to New York, where I will begin learning at Mechon Hadar the following week.