When Adir Bhastekar told his parents he had been offered the opportunity to leave the bustling, crowded streets of Mumbai this summer to travel to far-off Szarvas, Hungary, they told him to jump at the chance. They wanted him to join the more than 1,300 young Jews from around the world who were experiencing a unique kind of Jewish community at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) International Summer Camp in the serene forests of Southeastern Hungary.
“They told me to go, just go!” said Adir, whose family is part of the Bene Israel community in India’s most populous city. “It was a once in a lifetime chance to meet other Jews and let them know how happy and safe we are here in India as Indian citizens.”
Adir is no stranger to Jewish life, having grown up participating in Mumbai’s Jewish community. His grandparents are originally from the town of Awas, on India’s Western coast, and his Mumbai-born parents often attend communitywide Passover seders and Israeli Independence Day celebrations. Adir, and his younger sister, served as volunteers at the JDC-run Jewish Community Center and he was specially selected among his peers to travel to Hungary to get further training as a Jewish community leader. He was also joined by four other Indian Jews—from Thane, Pune, and Mumbai—and he became an ambassador of the Indian Jewish community.
“There are many cultural differences for us,” notes Adir. “Two of us do not eat beef, some of us tend to be far more socially conservative and we certainly do pray slightly differently. But all in all, we just came together. I feel that the youth culture here at Szarvas makes me excited about being Jewish.”
For the past 19 years, the Szarvas camp has not only facilitated opportunities for Jewish life, but has been the catalyst of Jewish identity for countless campers, counselors, and senior staff. Hailing from more than 20 countries, Szarvas participants celebrate many aspects of Jewish culture and religious tradition, including Shabbat, text study, and a beautiful Havdalah service (concluding Shabbat prayers) by the river. The camp is dedicated to pluralism, ensuring that Jews of all denominations are welcomed.
The campers also explore ways to enhance their Jewish communities back home and build models for participating in the larger, global community of Jews. They engage in prayer services and Jewish cultural and educational activities, lectures and strategy sessions, as well as discussions on Jewish identity and programming. Because of the international nature of the camp, in each session around seven languages are spoken, including Hebrew. In addition, the participants hike, canoe, swim, and engage in a variety of sports.
But for Adir, meeting Jews from around the world was especially profound. Of all those he connected with, he most enjoyed meeting the American Jewish contingent, with whom he shared a common language, English, and some unique pop-culture ties. He noted that the only substantial contact he had previously with Jews from other places were the Israelis and Americans who visited the JCC in Mumbai for very short periods.
Outside of the fun he was having with his new friends, Adir noted that coming to Szarvas gave him a chance to prove that India is more than what is shown on television. Since the 2008 terrorists attacks in Mumbai, Adir said that it was important at Szarvas to share that there is “no anti-Semitism in India. There are positive and a few negative consequences about being Jewish, but we are fully protected and happy here.”
Szarvas, which has historically offered defining experiences in leadership development and training, ensures that participants can return to their communities and make important changes to programming and youth activity at the grassroots level. To ensure maximum impact, Szarvasmadrichim (counselors) must engage in an intensive two-year training program before they come on staff. In fact, among local Jewish camps in Eastern Europe and the FSU, the majority of camp directors are Szarvas alumni.
And although Adir, at 21, is a recent college graduate and intends on exploring work in finance, he says he will not give up his ties to the Jewish community. In fact, he says the experiences at Szarvas have increased his willingness to stay connected.
“We’ve taken back to India with us the creativity in programming, innovations, case studies and ideas we learned about. The management skills are very valuable,” he said, noting in particular his desire to build programs for Indian Jewish children who attend camp at the MumbaiJCC.
Szarvas is one of more than 60 JDC-sponsored retreats throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union that offer an all-encompassing summer excursion, combining Jewish renewal with outdoor fun. Offering programming for toddlers to teenagers and their families, the retreats are based in Eastern Europe in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In the former Soviet Union, retreats take place in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.