A Respite for Ukraine’s Jews: My Day at Szarvas Mriya

Szarvas Mriya gave Ukraine's Jews relief from the ongoing crisis –– and Dan Alpert got to witness it all.

By Dan Alpert - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow; Budapest, Hungary | August 8, 2023

Dan Alpert (left) on a boat ride with Igor Tysiachka (right), the director of Szarvas Mriya.

This past May, JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow Dan Alpert spent an impactful day at Mriya –– the respite camp for Ukraine’s Jews hosted at Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. Amidst another summer of Szarvas fun, Alpert writes about why he found Mriya to be such a joyous and necessary place for Jews caught in the Ukraine crisis. 

Dan Alpert

Sitting with Katya, I watched video highlights from the last session of Szarvas Mriya. She turned to me and said, “You can see it in their faces: They’re happy.”

Katya is a multimedia specialist at Szarvas. Walk into her office and you’ll see it filled with gadgets to capture the key moments of each day at the camp. Her job is to show the world the impact Szarvas has had on young Jews from Ukraine and around the globe. 

As I pulled up to the camp entrance that beautiful May morning, I was greeted with the same big banner that campers see each summer. It hangs above two central cabins right in front and reads “Welcome” in various languages, a symbol of the camp’s global outlook. 

To my left, the newly renovated dining hall featured photos and stories about Ukrainian athletes, in line with that day’s theme — sports. I could hear people laughing, talking, and starting their day, the sounds of a camp in full swing. 

While Mriya was originally supposed to be six 12-day sessions, it was extended to eight so that even more Jewish families from Ukraine could seek respite here. The camp opened in January, when the country’s residents were struggling to make it through a harsh winter amidst frequent blackouts and often lacking heat. 

This camp was a natural extension of the magic Szarvas makes happen each year. Every summer, the camp welcomes young Jews from across Europe and around the world. As the current JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow in Budapest, I’ve heard many camp stories. Ask ten Jewish adults here, and eight will probably say they attended Szarvas — its impact has simply been that far-reaching. 

Dan (left) with Sasha Friedman (right), the director of Szarvas.

As I walked around the camp with the Szarvas camp director, Sasha Friedman, and saw the numerous fields, courts, and playgrounds –– new and improved because of recent renovations –– I thought about my own summer camp back home in the United States. I spoke with individuals at Szarvas, and it was evident that this camp cultivates that sense of joy, friendship, and belonging I feel at my camp. 

Sasha’s long standing dedication to Jewish youth, and more specifically Jewish camping, was apparent in the stories he told me about the camp over the years. It was also noticeable when he shared how his team quickly made Szarvas ready for this important winter camp.

Igor Tysiachka, Mriya’s director, shared this same sense of dedication to Jewish youth and camping. That day, I had the great fortune of joining Igor for a boat ride, when he told me his story. He grew up in Ukraine and found his professional home at Szarvas as a staff member. Now a refugee himself, he took the lead of operating the family camp to help give other Ukrainian Jews the same sense of connection and community he feels at Szarvas.  

Summer camps bring people together. At Szarvas, it is made sure that there’s a place for you, no matter what your connection to Jewish life has been like up to that point. This was clear when I explored the camp synagogue. There, I saw the vast amount of siddurim (prayer books) available for campers and staff to choose from. It was evident that the camp cared about making families feel comfortable, whatever their own Jewish exploration and practice may be.  

Even after being at Szarvas for just one day, it left no doubt in my mind that this is a home, not just a camp. It’s a home for Jews from around the world, a place to come together and find enjoyment, a chance to learn and grow with Jews of different backgrounds. 

At Szarvas, there’s a place for you, no matter what your connection to Jewish life has been like until that point.

Just as Szarvas has impacted the lives of thousands of individuals who have been campers and staff members since 1990, now Szarvas extends that impact to those who need our help the most.

Having Szarvas open for these past few months was no easy task, yet it shows the value of tikkun olam — making the world a better place by bringing people together, sharing in Jewish life, and simply seeing the smiles on each others’ faces. Just like Katya said as we sat and watched her video, you can really see it on people’s faces — pure happiness. 

Dan Alpert graduated in 2021 from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland where he received a Bachelor of Science in marketing and minors in Jewish Studies and International Development and Conflict Management. He then went to work in the Maryland General Assembly focused on labor and transportation policy for a State Delegate.

Now, he serves as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Budapest, Hungary, working with JCC Budapest on overseas donor engagement and supporting refugee services for those fleeing Ukraine.

JDC Entwine is grateful to the generous supporters of the Jewish Service Corps Fellowship; Pears Foundation, Sandler Family, Soref Foundation, the W and E Kahane Family Foundation, William Donner, and the Wolf family.

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