Tu B’Av: From Szarvas, a Summer Camp Love Story

In the spirit of Tu B'Av, we share Hanga and Szoszo’s story of finding love at Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary.

By Hanga Várhelyi & Szoszo Kosztopulosz | August 3, 2020

Szoszo and Hanga

The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Av is a chance to celebrate love. In that spirit, we’re excited to share this love story with you. Hanga and Szoszo’s connection was forged at Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary.

Hanga Várhelyi, 24:I went to Szarvas for the first time when I was 10 years old. Growing up in Budapest, I didn’t have much of a connection to Judaism before that, as my family isn’t religious and doesn’t really keep traditions. I went to the camp as a chanicha (camper) for five years, and then become a madricha (counselor) working with children ages 7-10. After four years, I became a unit head, working with an international group of young leaders on camp programming. That was a huge step for me, since just a few years earlier I was a “beginner” and didn’t know much. Almost everything I know about Judaism I learned at Szarvas, and to be able to teach kids about our shared traditions is very meaningful for me.

Hanga was a madricha (counselor) for campers ages 7-10 at Camp Szarvas for four years, before becoming a unit head.

Szokratesz “Szoszo” Kosztopulosz, 30:I went to Szarvas the first time when I was 11 years old, the year after my family moved from Greece to Hungary. Attending one of Budapest’s Jewish schools, I had some relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community, but my real connection started at Szarvas about 20 years ago. I became a madrich (counselor) at 17 and a unit head a few years later. I was also a member and later the leader of Hanoar Hatzioni, the same Jewish youth movement Hanga was part of. We didn’t meet there, though! We missed each other by a few years.

In 2015, when I was 25, I started working for JDC, serving as Szarvas’s kitchen coordinator during the summers and working as JDC-Hungary’s logistical coordinator and later its operations manager during the off-season. My job was to make sure everything ran smoothly — the same thing I did for the camp’s kitchen but on a larger scale. I liked to think of myself as the “fixer,” making sure my colleagues had the tools they needed to be able to focus on their work with the community. And who better than me to understand those needs, since I’d walked in their shoes for many years before that? In the beginning, I very much missed working directly with kids, but honestly, I realized I was good at my job and JDC needed someone in the role who was also passionate about Hungary’s Jewish community.

Starting when he was 25, Szoszo (center, with camp visitors) served as Szarvas’s kitchen coordinator during the summers and JDC-Hungary’s logistical coordinator and later its operations manager during the off-season.

Hanga:In 2017, when I became a unit head, Szoszo was working in the camp’s kitchen as its logistical coordinator. Though we’d met several times before, we only got to know each other well that summer. Soon, we decided we wanted to see what a relationship would look like outside of the crazy Jewish paradise that is Szarvas, too. Long story short, we fell in love and got engaged last year! We’re currently planning our Jewish wedding, and we’re excited to celebrate with Szarvas friends from around the world.

Szoszo:Two years ago, my life changed and I had to change accordingly. I was offered a job at an international company to serve as their “team builder,” the person responsible for the company’s culture. It was new and exciting, and it offered me a chance to go back to my roots of working directly with people. I accepted the job, and I’m still there, loving it and enthusiastic about all the ways I can use the tools and skills I learned at Szarvas and working for JDC. Before I left my work as a Jewish communal professional, my friends asked me if I was leaving with a heavy heart. I told them, “Of course. I grew up there and that’s where I learned everything I know.” And who knows? Maybe I’ll be back some day. I still participate in community lectures and programs from time to time, and I’m hopeful our wedding will be a small Szarvas and JDC reunion.

Hanga: Last year was my final summer at Szarvas. Even if camp was operating normally and there’d been no pandemic, I couldn’t have gone this year. I just graduated from university, where I studied to be an English and French teacher, and I’ll start at a Budapest high school next month. In my teaching, I was able to use many skills and methodologies I learned during my years as a madricha and unit head at Szarvas, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do that in the future, too. For the last three years, I’ve volunteered with a Budapest foundation called Haver, through which I go into high schools to talk about Jewish identity and teach tolerance. I love the work, and I’m sure I’ll stay close to the Jewish community of Budapest, even with the demands of my new job.

Szoszo:Our lives were definitely changed by Szarvas in many ways. Hanga and I learned a lot about Judaism and got to experience and fall in love with Jewish traditions in person. We became friends with many people who are still dear to us, and of course, we met each other! I’m forever grateful.

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