All year long Henrik Z., 32, who has Down Syndrome and lives with his pensioner mother in Budapest, Hungary, looks forward to the most special week of his summer. That’s when he goes to camp Szarvas, where he sees his friends, plays soccer, and celebrates Shabbat with the community he feels closest to.
“I return to Szarvas every year to see my friends and feel something I cannot feel anywhere else—happy,” he says.
Home taught by his father for much of his life, Henrik started to attend a special school for the first time when his dad died about 10 years ago. As he began to socialize with his peers, his teacher recommended that he attend a summer program to maintain his social development and interaction throughout the year. That’s when he learned about the one-week summer program for people with disabilities at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary.
Established twenty years ago to reconnect young Jews from post-communist Central and Eastern Europe to Jewish life, today Szarvas provides a venue for hundreds of campers from over 25 countries to explore their Jewish identity, connect with Israel, and build an unparalleled Jewish community that transcends geographical borders and religious denominations. For a week each summer, the integration program for people with disabilities brings youngsters with special needs as well as elderly residents of the Újpest Israel Sela Nursing Home to the camp.
For participants like Henrik who are greatly limited in access to programs tailored to their unique needs, this is a dream come true.
“I love Szarvas and feel I belong there more than anywhere else in the world. I like to swim, bake pita, play football, and dance there. But most of all I love Shabbat, when we go to services together. As a result, now I sometimes go to synagogue at home, to pray for my father," he says.
Jewish communal life has become increasingly important for Henrik; while he and his mother struggle from day to day to make ends meet, they find comfort in the Jewish community and are grateful for the help they receive here. Similarly, many of the camp participants live bound by limited resources and mounting daily struggles in single-parent homes, welfare institutions, day cares, or nursing home facilities. For all of them the camp offers a refreshing sense of freedom.
Misi S., 30, who also has Down Syndrome and has attended the unique program since its inception, says it best: “Since both of my parents passed, I live in the Sela home during the year. When I come to Szarvas I celebrate my birthday: We celebrate together in the dining hall. I stand on a chair as everyone sings. I feel happy. I feel family around me. I feel home.”
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