From Sarajevo to Szarvas and Back Again: How JDC’s Jewish Summer Camp Inspires Volunteerism
Blanka Nicevic found her Jewish identity at Camp Szarvas. When COVID-19 hit her home of Sarajevo, her camp experience inspired her to help her community.
By Blanka Nicevic - Homecare Coordinator & Student, Sarajevo | September 9, 2020
My heart breaks when I think about campers who looked forward all year to summer at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary. For me, my first and most beautiful memories are from my time at Szarvas.
I grew up in the Jewish community of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I was six years old when I traveled to Szarvas for the first time. I made a lot of friends there, and from then on, I’d spend the whole year just waiting for summer camp. Each summer, Szarvas was a reunion — the place I missed all year, the place where I knew I’d have so much fun with friends from all over the world, the place where I learned so much about Judaism and Jewish holidays and celebrated such special Shabbats, and the place I knew I’d be lucky enough to return to the following year.
As I grew up, I found myself attending more JDC-supported programs, which I felt were like Szarvas for grown-ups. I attended Gesher, the annual JDC conference for young Jews in the Balkans, and I participated in the regional summer camp in Pirovac, Croatia. These programs helped cement my Jewish identity and my commitment to volunteerism and community.
When this difficult period of COVID-19 began, life in Sarajevo changed completely. There was a curfew for all citizens from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., and a total ban on going outside for people older than 65 or younger than 18. It felt like life stopped entirely, with only essential businesses open. Still, I’m proud of our small Bosnian Jewish community, which mobilized volunteers to help the most vulnerable among us.
We volunteers prepared humanitarian food packages, delivering them weekly. We also helped buy groceries, medicine, and personal hygiene supplies, and we paid utility bills for people stuck at home. We also escorted people to and from hospitals and old-age homes and phoned community members to offer support and make sure they were OK.
At the same time, we moved community life online. The Jewish community of Sarajevo, together with our hazzan Igor Bencion Kožemjakin, filmed an Erev Pesach service and a Yom HaShoah commemoration, uploading them both to YouTube. They also organized a live online Passover seder. These innovations were so important for keeping people connected to the community, even when they were stuck at home.
‘For me, that’s what being Jewish means — helping your community, no matter what.’
Twenty-eight years ago, we had war here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we could see that the memories of those dark days loomed large for our older community members. At the beginning of the crisis, I went to buy groceries for an older couple, and when I delivered the food, the husband told me that this was the second worst feeling of his life — the first was during the war, when he stood in line for food, and the second was now, when he and his wife needed groceries but couldn’t buy them themselves. That moment will be forever etched in my memory. Many elderly community members called us just to say thank you and to tell us that our volunteer response reminded them of all the good that was done against all odds 28 years ago.
I’m proud and glad I was able to help the most vulnerable members of my community through the pandemic. For me, that’s what being Jewish means — helping your community, no matter what. I learned that way back at that very first Szarvas summer, and it’s guided me ever since.
Blanka Nicevic, 29, is a member of the Jewish community of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She also works as a homecare coordinator and studies economics and business at the University of Sarajevo.