Many Ways to Be Jewish: A Szarvas Leader Celebrates His International Camp Experience

When Slavyan Kanovsky attended Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary, he discovered a vibrant Jewish world.

By Slavyan Kanovsky - Former Szarvas Unit Head | January 13, 2022

After 20 consecutive years at Camp Szarvas, Slavyan Kanovsky developed into a Jewish leader with a passion for Jewish life.

As a young child in Bulgaria, Slavyan Kanovsky had almost no contact with Jewish life — but Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary — would change all of that. As a camper, Kanovksy stepped into a broader Jewish world, one where he got to discover and create a Jewish life all his own. Kanovsky reflects on his camp experience, as well as the profound ways in which Szarvas has strengthened the Jewish world.

My Jewish story is similar to so many others in Bulgaria. 

When I was seven, my grandfather sat me down and told me I was Jewish. My mother, who herself didn’t know she was Jewish until she was an adult, immediately enrolled me in Sofia’s Lauder Jewish School. While there, my brother and I attended the JDC-supported Bulgarian Jewish summer camp in Kovachevtsi, and the following year, Szarvas — the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary. 

At summer camps and weekly JCC activities, we embraced Jewish life, bringing new traditions home and teaching my mother all the things she’d missed in her youth. We threw ourselves into local youth movements, such as BBYO, and later, I served as Bulgaria’s BBYO director, while my brother helped found Moishe House Sofia.

And Camp Szarvas is one of the reasons I’m a leader today. 

Growing up in Bulgaria, Jewish life wasn’t that visible. We didn’t have kosher shops or restaurants, and it was harder to access the variety of Jewish traditions you see in other countries. But at Szarvas, I met Jewish kids from across the world, and my mind was blown by the vast array of diverse Jewish expression: At Szarvas, there were so many ways to be Jewish, and all of them were celebrated. 

Eager to learn more, my favorite activity was when we’d gather for peula, hour-long discussions about topics related to Jewish life. During these discussions, camp leaders used experiential learning techniques to teach Jewish values in a fun, interactive way. 

Slavyan (center, in blue) at Szarvas in 2012.

But I also love sports, and at Szarvas, I got to play in so many football and basketball tournaments, as well as maccabiada, the Szarvas version of the Olympics. We even had our own version of capture-the-flag where we’d learn about Jewish history and values. I loved how Szarvas combined competitive games with Jewish learning. 

So many people inspired me through the years — the madrichim (counselors), central staff, and unit heads. But if I had to pick one person who inspired me the most, I’d say Steve Israel, the camp’s educational consultant back in those years, who prepared the unit heads throughout the year and the madrichim during pre-camp. 

From my first year as a madrich, I was astounded by Steve’s vast amount of Jewish knowledge. I was even more impressed by the downright poetic way he’d interpret this knowledge, filtering it through his own unique perspective with oratory skills that always glued me to my chair. He inspired me to be a Jewish educator, and I’m glad and honored to have worked with him for so long.

Every camper has a Steve Israel, someone who inspired them to be their best self. And I hope that, as a madrich, I’ve been that person for someone else. 

The hardest part about being a madrich is also the most important — to be a role model, to practice what you preach. You can’t tell kids what to do. You have to show them what to do. So, if you want to teach kids to be better people, you have to be a better person yourself. This takes an enormous amount of self-awareness, but at the end of the day, it’s completely worth it, and I always want to do it again.

That’s why the International Madrich Training (IMT) is the pinnacle of my Szarvas experience, an Everest-like challenge that pushes me to be the best leader possible. IMT participants are motivated, knowledgeable adults — with high expectations. During the training, I prepare not one, but several educational lessons per day, and they have to be more elaborate and comprehensive than anything I prepare for younger kids.

Not only that, but I try to be as close to a perfect madrich as I can, and I ask the participants to challenge me on anything, anywhere, 24/7. I ask them to question and critique me, to hold me to the standards I set for them. That’s what makes this experience so incredibly challenging, but also incredibly fulfilling. Being an IMT trainer will always be an immense source of pride, one of my highest achievements and most honorable moments — indeed, a highlight of my life. 

Szarvas has an impact so much larger than itself. Over the years, I’ve watched Szarvas bring Jewish life back to Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, and it’s given me the knowledge and tools I’ve needed to build a Jewish life. Most importantly, Szarvas showed me that I have the right to my own unique perspective, my own Jewish identity, and that I’m a valued member of the greater Jewish world. 

Slavyan Kanovsky

I came from a small Jewish community. But when I met Jewish people from the U.S., Israel, and so many other places, I was overwhelmed with joy. At Szarvas, I knew I was part of a huge Jewish family. And my camp experience inspired me to continue working to build Jewish life in Bulgaria.

So many people share my experience: Szarvas inspired them to become Jewish community leaders. If I I’d been at Szarvas in 1990, after almost 50 years of communism in Eastern Europe, when Jewish activities were practically banned and parents often hid their Jewish identity from their kids, maybe I’d say that what we’ve accomplished today would be impossible, because it’s such a stark contrast to the previous reality. But through incredible will, and against all odds, we’ve done it — we’ve made vibrant Jewish life a reality in so many places.

JDC also helped shape Jewish life into what it is today, both in Bulgaria and across the region. For many years, they’ve organized and sponsored all kinds of events that jumpstart the creativity and drive of local Jews. And as the Bulgarian community becomes more self-sustaining, JDC is still by our side, supporting and listening to us.

I’ve been a tour guide for almost 10 years, and two years ago, I opened the second-biggest hostel in Bulgaria. I now manage a 15-person team and we have around 70 beds. The ability to motivate and lead a team is a direct result of my Szarvas experience. I wouldn’t be the professional I am today without my Jewish family at Szarvas.

Szarvas showed me that I have the right to my own unique perspective, and that I’m a valued member of the greater Jewish world.

Last year, when tourism was down, I started a food-delivery company so that I could continue responding to people’s needs during lockdown. That adaptability, problem-solving, multitasking, and perseverance is also something I learned at Szarvas. 

Across Europe, JCCs are filled with Szarvas alumni. It seems like almost every young leader has at some point been a chanich (camper), madrich, or unit head at Szarvas. One way or another, they’ve all been inspired — just like me. 

I’d like to see the Bulgarian Jewish community grow even stronger. I want to see it continue to develop and empower the leaders that are surely there amongst its youngest generation.

Today, more and more Szarvas alumni are taking on leadership roles. Thanks to Camp Szarvas and JDC, I know that Bulgaria’s Jewish future will be bright indeed. 

Slavyan Kanovsky spent 20 consecutive years at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary — seven years as a chanich (camper), seven years as a madrich (counselor), and six years as a unit head; he was also a regular participant at the JDC-supported JCC Beit Shalom in Sofia. Now a successful entrepreneur in the Bulgarian capital, Kanovsky owns and manages Smart Hostel Sofia and leads independent tours of both Jewish Sofia and the larger city.

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