Global Jewish Reflections | Faith and Freedom: A Szarvas Leader Reflects on the Meaning of Passover

What does Passover teach us? Niki Novák, a unit head at Camp Szarvas and staff member at JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház, reflects on what lessons this story imparts to us today.

By Niki Novák - Program Coordinator, JCC Budapest | March 23, 2021

Niki, center, with campers at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

On Passover, I think of freedom. 

What is it? How do we achieve it? And what must we leave behind and take with us when we’re called across the sea? In lockdown, we’re a bit like the Jews in Egypt. We feel trapped and fear what might come next. We need a guide. And once we get freedom, we must also have order. We’ll need structure. But what kind?

After he flees Pharoah, leaves Egypt, and parts the Red Sea, Moses discovers a desert as dry as matzah. Yes, he’s free. But his freedom has a price. Confronted by this empty openness, he must wander. What felt like freedom now feels formless. It’s both blank and full of possibility. To feel free, he and his people need order. 

Thousands of years and thousands of miles from where Moses raised his staff, stretched his arms, and defied the laws of physics, I sat down for Passover in Budapest. My friends and I had enjoyed preparing the Passover feast, even if I was a little squeamish touching raw meat. I was so happy to see my community, though, that we laughed it off. 

Niki uses the ropes course at Szarvas.

That year we held a seder all our own. We bought our own matzah, mixed our own charoset, laid our own table, and I, a newly-minted madricha (counselor), got to sit with these leaders, now my friends. They had helped me cross into adulthood, and now we were peers. 

Adulthood brings freedom, and freedom brings responsibility. That night, we lit candles, said Passover prayers, and in the shadows, we looked at each other. Everybody who was there wanted to be there. What held us together wasn’t just our newfound adulthood. No. It was the order itself, passed down to us through generations.

My favorite thing about the seder is the root of the word itself: order. We found freedom within the rules, and the rules ordered our seder. Without them, we’d have been lost. 

Everybody needs order. It gives us stability, reliability, and a sense of safety. It also gives us joy, power, beauty, and yes, freedom. Order is the ground beneath our feet.

From the moment his mother places him in a basket to the second he steps into the desert, Moses confronts radical uncertainty. He always stands at the edge of what’s known and unknown, seen and unseen. He risks everything for what he knows is true. And when he enters the desert, he and his followers experience chaos.

Freedom brings joy, but also chaos. Order is how we deal with the responsibilities that freedom places on our shoulders, its pool of possibilities. That’s why I’m fascinated by how we celebrate Passover. No matter the circumstances, thanks to order, we have a structure that guides us across the sea of uncertainty.

Niki leads an activity as Hungarian unit head at Szarvas.

Camp Szarvas was my most important guide. As a former camper and madricha, I gained concrete and high-level knowledge about Jewish traditions and leadership. I learned about myself, too, as it guided me on my Jewish journey and encouraged me to want to know more. Thanks to my summers there, I can do simple things, like slice a bun in half, but I also know that I can inspire a group of tweens, like I did when I was a Hungarian madricha

Szarvas brought my Jewish journey full-circle, showing me the many ways a person can experience their Judaism and inspiring me to learn more about Jewish traditions, history, and culture. There’s always something new to discover at Camp Szarvas, someone new to meet, a new idea, a fresh perspective.

Now I work at JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház. From the director to the receptionist to the IT specialist, the JCC is one large Jewish family. Everyone is essential. As a program coordinator, I organize holiday events and create the design for the JCC’s “holidays” page. 

The JCC has also guided me on my Jewish journey: It’s my second Jewish home. I attended JCC day camps when I was a child and learned karate here, too. When I got a little older, I became a madricha in school programs that the JCC had organized. Like many, I live and breathe JCC Budapest. The Jewish community would be worse off without it. 

I love every one of the JCC’s programs, which serve a wide range of people from all walks of Hungarian Jewish life. One of my favorite programs is “All Heart Dance,” a weekly program that teaches Israeli dance to Jews with disabilities. Everyone deserves to celebrate, and JCC Budapest guarantees that no matter who you are, you’re given a space to feel free.

And to feel free, we have to have faith. 

Passover shows us what faith looks like. Faith in our people, faith in Moses, faith in G-d.

Passover shows us what faith looks like. Faith in our people, faith in Moses, faith in G-d, and, of course, faith that our lives can and will get better. But the Passover story also shows us that it’s not easy. It’s not easy to believe in a future we cannot see. It’s not easy to reach a better place. It takes time, effort, and guidance.

Thanks to Camp Szarvas and JCC Budapest, I have two guides by my side. They have given me a Jewish life that feels joyous, ordered, and free. 

Niki Novák is a proud member of the Budapest Jewish community. She works as a teacher at the Lauder School, a program coordinator for JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház, and a unit head at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. Niki is also a proud alumna of the Hanoar Hatzioni youth movement.

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