Building Jewish Leaders at Hungary’s Camp Szarvas

August 12, 2015

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For 24-year-old David Csillik — who works as a unit head at Szarvas, JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s pioneering international Jewish summer camp — his purpose is clear.

“We want to build a positive Jewish future. We want the kids to have a positive Jewish experience,” said Csillik, who hails from Budapest. “For most of the campers, Szarvas is their first Jewish experience, just like it was for me.”

Like many Szarvas campers of his generation, Csillik was born to parents whose Jewish identity was negatively impacted by the aftermath of the Holocaust and decades of Communist rule.

“We’re the first generation trying to reestablish our Jewish identity,” he said.

Before World War II, more than 800,000 Jews lived in Hungary; after the war, just 200,000 remained, and that number has now dropped to an estimated 100,000. The community is vigilant against what is widely seen as a sharp increase in far-right and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Csillik’s high school was formerly a Jewish school and still attracts many Jewish students. He heard about Szarvas from a classmate and attended for the first time at 15.

Looking back, he said he wishes he’d started even younger.

“My parents were really afraid of me coming to Szarvas at first. They heard about anti-Semitism on the rise in Hungary and didn’t think it was good for me to be involved with a place where something like that might occur,” he said. “But now they’re thankful Szarvas has provided me with so many wonderful experiences.”

For the past six years, Csillik has been a madrich, or counselor. This summer, he returned to camp as a unit head for Hungarian campers, hoping to share his passion with the next generation.

In a European Jewish landscape that often leans heavily on the Holocaust as a unifying theme for community programs, Szarvas stands out because it focuses on Europe’s Jewish future, he said.

“Judaism is not just about the Holocaust. It is important to talk about, but … it’s not building a vital community; it’s only a chance to mourn. At Szarvas, we want to build a positive Jewish future. And we’re really good at it. That’s why I’m still here,” Csillik said.

Szarvas dedicates one day to the Holocaust. The remainder of each 12-day session is spent building community — having honest conversations about Judaism, family, identity, relationships, individuality, and leadership.

Szarvas focuses on building the next generation of confident leaders from the inside out.

“My favorite thing about being Jewish is the community. JDC has given me the opportunity to get proper madrich training, to see myself as a Jewish leader, a Jewish advocate, someone who is actually a representative of the community,” Csillik explained. “By gaining the skills given to me by JDC, I no longer feel helpless. I feel like a leader.”

He’s now one of the most active local Jewish leaders, working with a team of volunteers to collect data on anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary and generate reports twice a day. The reports are sent to a few hundred partners, including the Jewish community, foundations working to stop anti-Semitism, the Hungarian government, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Csillik also serves at the president of the Jewish Youth Council in Budapest.

“Szarvas builds good Jewish leaders because it’s challenging. It challenges leaders in all the ways you can imagine — education, logistics, interpersonal relationships,” he said. “If you don’t just stay one year, if you stay many years and work your way to a unit head, taking it to a higher level, you’ll have all the knowledge and skills you need to be an actual Jewish leader for the next generation.”

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