Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
Growing up, my most formative Jewish experiences happened at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. I can easily say that’s the place where I grew up, discovered and explored my Jewish identity, made friendships for life, and learned what it means to be a good person, role model, and Jewish educator.
Szarvas is also the place where many of my “firsts” happened: my first Shabbat, first bar/bat mitzvah, first kosher food experience, and probably the first time I heard the sound of a shofar. I say “probably” because I actually can’t remember when I first heard it. I just assume it was at Szarvas because I have this clear, vivid image in my head of standing at the mifkad — the central plaza where we start each camp morning — and listening to the sound of shofar.
Most summers, Elul — the month leading up to the High Holy Days — starts while we’re still at camp. One of the reasons I love being at Szarvas when Elul begins is that I can hear the shofar each morning. It’s right there and perhaps I even take it for granted. I come from the small Jewish community of Belgrade, and I don’t attend synagogue services on a daily basis, which means that until Rosh Hashanah comes along, I don’t hear the sound of the shofar in Serbia. That’s fine, usually, since I now so associate the shofar with Szarvas mornings that it might feel unnatural to hear it in Belgrade. And then Rosh Hashanah comes and I celebrate the holidays with my community. I appreciate those moments, too, because when the Jewish community is as small as it is here in Serbia, the holidays feel like a family reunion.
Elul is a period of soul-searching. It’s a custom to blow the shofar every day after the morning shacharit service, so that’s what we do at Szarvas, too. Every morning at the mifkad when the whole camp gathers, after we say Modeh Ani and the Shema, the camp’s rabbi blows the shofar. It’s meant to arouse us from our lethargy and the cynicism of our daily lives, putting us in the right mindset for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.
I don’t know how many of our campers experience the shofar this way. Are they searching their souls, getting ready for the High Holy Days and that spiritual state of mind? I know it’s a process, a journey.
One of the reasons I love being at Szarvas when Elul begins is that I can hear the shofar each morning.
When I was still a chanicha (camper) or even in the early years after I became a madricha (counselor) at Szarvas, I wasn’t really thinking about the meaning behind the blowing of the shofar or of what Elul symbolizes. It wasn’t on my radar. I would only think about the holidays once they arrived. But, over the years, things slowly started to change as my role at camp changed and I became its program director.
This new position pushed me to learn more, to explore more. I became more and more curious about Judaism and its traditions and practices. At first, I would find myself closing my eyes during the blowing of the shofar, just trying to focus on the sound. Then, I would find myself thinking about the meaning behind this custom, trying to find ways to make this experience ever more personal and meaningful.
Two years ago, I was fortunate to get an opportunity, through YESOD, to move to Jerusalem for a year and study at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Working for Szarvas — and by extension, JDC — gave me the freedom and possibility to follow my dreams and my curiosity, while still being able to do the job I love. One of the great things about JDC is that it values Jewish education and helps to support people’s professional (and personal) growth and development.
So there I was, exactly two years ago in Jerusalem, starting my studies at Pardes in the month of Elul — the month so fully colored with the sound of the shofar, with introspection and self-reflection and soul-searching. New beginnings, looking toward the future — these were just a few of the many thoughts I had in that period that still resonate with me today. I constantly remind myself of them.
We are currently in the Ten Days of Repentance. The daily blowing of the shofar has ended, Rosh Hashanah is just behind us, and Yom Kippur is just a few days away. It is a period of introspection — we are thinking about our life in the past year and who we were as individuals, about our transgressions and the confessions we should make. It’s the period when we take the time to consider who we should ask forgiveness from and who we should forgive.
It’s not easy. It takes a lot of self-discipline and courage to be honest with ourselves. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shuvah — “the Shabbat of Repentance.” Teshuvah (repentance) is the core concept of the High Holy Days. This word literally means “return,” and in Judaism, the idea of repentance is a “return to the path of righteousness.”
As we look back at who we were in the past year, and as we look at the present moment trying to understand what we need to do to become the best versions of ourselves, I want to suggest we also take the time to look forward — to look into the future and try to understand what this new beginning can mean for us. What is it we want it to bring for us? How can it help us and “return us to the path of righteousness?”
Mina Pasajlic is the program director at Camp Szarvas. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia, and, in addition to working at Szarvas, is involved in many Jewish educational programs there.