photo: Camp Szarvas
I was born and raised in Skopje, North Macedonia, and for as long as I can remember, the Jewish community has been a part of my life. I grew up attending Sunday School and summer camps, as well as participating in holiday celebrations, plays, and performances.
I’m a fourth-generation Jewish leader in our community. My great grandfather, originally from Sarajevo, moved to Skopje after World War II and helped rebuild the local Jewish community, serving as its president for about 20 years. My grandmother is serving her second term as president of the women’s club, while my mother has had a variety of community roles, including being a madricha (counselor), a board member, a student leader, the general secretary, and more. I have some big shoes to fill!
When I was 9 years old, my parents convinced me to attend Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary. Though I was not particularly excited about it at the time, it turned out to be one of the best decisions ever. I was part of the youngest ex-Yugoslavian group, full of kids I had never met before and who spoke languages slightly different than mine. Even though the challenges were many, I still vividly remember a lot of great moments from that year, from a maccabiah (sports tournament) on a hot summer day to a birthday celebration with my current best friend and fellow Szarvas unit head.
Though it was very special, I thought Szarvas was a one-time experience until I was 13 and reconnected with my “Yugo” friends at a regional seminar in Serbia. That was the turning point, as I realized there was a much larger Jewish community beyond my own I wanted to be a part of.
Soon after that, I started going to a small summer camp in Croatia and attended different regional seminars and teen seminars. All of this broadened my horizons, and eventually, my friends convinced me to come back to Szarvas in 2010. Since then, I’ve returned every summer — as a teen, as a madricha and, since 2017, as the unit head for my beloved Yugo group. The spirit, the friendships, and the dedication of the people trying to make an impact keep me coming back year after year.
I come from a very small, mainly Sephardic, community of about 250 members. The first time I went to Szarvas, there were more Jews there than I had ever seen in my life. Meeting kids from much larger communities and getting to know organizations like JDC really made me think about how I could contribute to the future of my own Skopje community. I started volunteering at events, eventually running the youth club and leading the student club; today, I’m an elected member of the Macedonian Jewish community’s management board.
JDC has been crucial in helping rebuild Jewish life after the Holocaust, especially in Eastern Europe. It has provided infrastructure, creating the space for multiple generations to immerse themselves in Jewish life. For me, what’s most valuable is the informal Jewish education JDC has provided for many kids and adults through Szarvas, local youth movements, seminars, madrich trainings, and more. JDC’s support is vital in building a future for Jewish communities across Europe.
JDC isn’t the only organization that has impacted my Jewish identity. When I was 16 years old, I was introduced to BBYO, the largest pluralistic Jewish youth movement and JDC’s partner (with the Genesis Philanthropy Group) in the Active Jewish Teens (AJT) youth network across the former Soviet Union. BBYO has also played an instrumental role in my life, empowering me to think critically and take an active role in shaping my community’s future.
I used to consider being part of the Jewish community a privilege, but toward the end of my adolescence, I realized it’s also a responsibility.
Just like Szarvas, BBYO allows teens to discover who they are and what they’re passionate about, offering them a variety of leadership roles to take on and make an impact. Beyond my teen involvement, I have helped build BBYO Balkans (consisting of the ex-Yugoslavian countries, Slovakia, and, since recently, Czech Republic), which has been essential in creating teen connections across the region. I’m also currently wrapping up my first year as the director of BBYO Eastern Europe. Through this professional role, I have the pleasure of working with teens and staff in 15 different communities, supporting the growth and development of their teen programs.
I’m proud to be a Jewish communal professional. From very early on I knew I wanted to give back; as clichéd as it may sound, I genuinely wanted other people to get to experience what I had and have similar opportunities for learning, growth, and fun. I used to consider being part of the Jewish community a privilege, but toward the end of my adolescence, I realized it’s also a responsibility — a responsibility to pass on knowledge, connect, and lead. I was very lucky to have strong role models to learn from and get inspired by. They gave me the tools and platform to transfer my knowledge to younger generations and create meaningful experiences for them.
In these unprecedented times, I’m reminded again of the power of the Jewish community to bring people together. The groups I’m involved with rapidly adjusted their programs in response to COVID-19. We got creative and found new ways to keep being engaged and connected. Online gatherings enabled us to expand our networks, try new things, and feel closer to people across the world.
Like many of my friends, I’m currently experiencing the weirdest summer ever by not being at camp. The silver lining is that we were able to bring camp home through our computers and share it with our families and friends. Held over the course of a few weeks, “Szarvas Spirit Days” reminded kids of their favorite camp activities like dancing, challah baking, singing, and madrich time. We continued to keep them involved, providing them with a mini-Szarvas experience that reminded them of the uniqueness of our community and kept them looking forward to summer 2021.
Next summer, we’ll hopefully come back stronger than ever and give kids a truly unforgettable summer. Until then, we should all stay safe and use this time to reconnect with friends or focus on things we might not have had the time for before. I’m confident Szarvas campers will keep the spirit up and that, this time next year, the dining hall will be louder than ever.
Rebeka Mucheva, 26, is BBYO’s director of Eastern Europe and the Yugo unit head at Szarvas. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in human resources at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia.