They’ll Never Take Being Jewish for Granted After Camp Szarvas

Gefen Beldie, who is a junior this year at Atlanta Jewish Academy, has spent most of her life in Israel and in the security of her Toco Hills community, where there are six synagogues within a mile of her house and where being Jewish is as easy as breathing.  Gefen never imagined the kinds of conversations she’d have as one of 19 U.S. teenagers accepted to attend Camp Szarvas, an international Jewish summer camp run by the JDC in Hungary and supported by Federation. Campers attend Szarvas from all over the world and for most of them it’s the most Jewish experience they’ve ever had.

“At Szarvas I found myself getting into intense conversations about identity, and I was up for it. I became friendly with a Czech girl who had very little exposure to Judaism. There are only two kosher restaurants in her whole country and her parents were actually reluctant to reveal their Jewish identity to her.  I could see that it was powerful for her to have an opportunity to live in a community of Jews for the first time in her life.”

For Shani Shapiro, one of this year’s Shinshinim from Zichron Yaakov, Israel, the experience of attending Camp Szarvas several years ago motivated her to apply for the Shinshinim program. At camp, where so many kids were getting their first taste of Judaism, she began introducing herself by saying, “Hi, I’m Shani, I’m Jewish.” Shani told of meeting a girl from Turkey who was sent to Szarvas by her parents. “She didn’t even know she was Jewish until she called them up and asked, ‘Why are things written in Hebrew here?’ This girl was shocked to learn about her identity. In Turkey it’s dangerous to be Jewish, she was literally starting from scratch.”

By contrast, Shani met kids from Moldova, a tiny country between Romania and Ukraine, who were strong in their Judaism and proud of it. That made an impression on her, too. “No one needs to tell me I am Jewish, but now I appreciate that some kids are afraid. I always dreamed of doing something bigger outside of Israel after high school,” Shani said. “Being part of Shinshinim Atlanta is opening my eyes to the American way of being Jewish.”