Exploring Jewish identity at summer camp in Hungary

Noa Rose is a Senior at Whitfield School and Emtza Region President of United Synagogue Youth.

By Noa Rose

Their Jewish journey began in the picturesque countryside of Hungary. Discovering their religious identity minutes before leaving home, they joined coreligionists who were nonetheless complete strangers. Their families had been scared, fearful that the anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head during the Holocaust would resurface and, thus, they chose assimilation. In sharp contradiction, in my country we have legislated religious freedom. We do not feel the need to hide, as some European Jews still do.


In search of common ground, discussions often took place in our ancestral vernacular, Hebrew. During lunchroom spirit sessions, we were careful to ensure that every country’s voice was heard rather than being drowned out by the big, loud Americans. We supported smaller delegations, singing with them and attempting to pronounce their unfamiliar words.


I shared the Jewish opportunities available to me in the United States with my new friends. I described egalitarian Judaism and the roles for women, a radical idea to many. I inspired younger campers to lead their Jewish lives with intention and integrity, one minor responsibility and honor that I enjoyed as a North American Fellow at Camp Szarvas.


Simple questions became complex and profound, especially when asked by “outsiders.” A particularly curious boy named Yan incessantly peppered our delegation with questions seeking to understand our strange American ways:

“Why do white policemen kill blacks?” 

“Why do Americans only eat fried food?” 

“Why do so many Americans possess guns?” 

I soon began asking myself these same questions, reflecting on the intricate and often contradictory nuances of my life as an American Jew.


Yan, 17, was born and raised in Ukraine. He and his family celebrate a few of the major Jewish holidays, but that is the extent of their religious practice. Yan told me about his life in his native country, describing his three younger siblings, going to an all-boys school, and his favorite TV show, “Game of Thrones.”

One day, Yan shared something I was never expecting to hear. Days before leaving for camp, he and his family were forced to leave their home and move across the country to stay protected from the rabid anti-Semitism that often accompanies national and ethnic conflicts. While the war in Crimea ensued, they feared for their lives. Yan’s family was not alone. Many of their neighbors fled and were separated from loved ones, only seeing one another on an occasional basis.


Since my time as a Szarvas Fellow, I often think of those who had the vision and foresight to foster our international community at Camp Szarvas. My mind frequently travels to far-flung regions where my friends continue to face tumult and turmoil.

I ask myself: What is my moral obligation as a privileged Jewish-American during this time of global crisis? Will I demand of myself, and other nascent leaders, to take action? Will we have the courage and patience to approach each individual, and culture, with the same sensitivity, deference and respect modeled at Camp Szarvas? Will this orientation to the world truly succeed at bringing about a spirit of mutuality and a global yearning for coexistence?


Camp Szarvas catalyzed within me the need to ask these questions. The search for answers now becomes the next leg in my Jewish journey and my life’s work.