Feature Stories

Forging a Stronger Jewish Identity under the Summer Sun

In the decades since the fall of Communism, JDC supported Jewish summer camps have been an integral part of its Jewish renewal efforts.
In the decades since the fall of Communism, JDC supported Jewish summer camps have been an integral part of its Jewish renewal efforts.

In the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where entire generations were cut off from their Jewish heritage and community life was actively discouraged, Jewish camping is a meaningful and effective outlet for building Jewish awareness and identity among children and families. These “total immersion” Jewish educational experiences have been a key part of JDC’s Jewish renewal activities for more than two decades, helping thousands of people in the region rediscover their Jewish roots and connect to a culturally rich and enduring community.

Paula, an adorable 7-year-old living in Warsaw, Poland, had her first Jewish camping experience this summer. She is the first member of her family in seven decades to be born with the choice to openly practice Judaism.

Paula’s maternal great-grandparents, from what are now the countries of Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, survived the Holocaust; their children, Paula’s grandparents, learned that it was generally much safer not to speak of being Jewish in postwar communist Poland. (Coincidentally, these Jewish grandparents met in a Jewish social club in Wroclaw long supported by JDC.)

Despite growing up in a time and place where religion—and specifically Judaism—was taboo, Paula’s mother was intrigued by her Jewish roots and in the 1990s began to reclaim her Jewish heritage. She has since been actively involved in rebuilding Jewish community life throughout Poland and today is fascinated to watch her daughter grow up in an atmosphere where being Jewish is a natural part of who she is.

Paula came back from JDC summer camp outside Warsaw this month with new songs and dances, lots of beautiful Jewish-themed art projects, and what her mother considers most important of all: “the feeling of belonging to a group which is much larger than her family.”

In September, Paula will be starting Jewish day school, her mother reports, expressing her hope that her daughter will have the chance to grow up “in a healthy Jewish environment in a civic society, with more Jewish joys than Jewish fear—the chance that her great-grandparents, grandparents, and her parents never had.”

Again this summer, children and youth in the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and various parts of the former Yugoslavia are having life-changing experiences at JDC-supported Jewish summer camps. In addition to sports, arts, and other recreation activities, these camps offer the youngest generation a priceless first encounter with their heritage and the opportunity to become part of their local Jewish community.

Tags for this story: Camps / Retreats, Children, Families, Holocaust Survivors

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