San Diego teen attends Jewish summer camp in Hungary



American fellows at Hungary’s Camp Szarvas

By Darren Schwartz

Darren Schwartz

Sydney Schenk and friend Dorci at a mountain lookout

SAN DIEGO — This week I would like to highlight an incredible teen who chose to do something pretty unique with her summer. Sydney Schenk is a rising senior at the San Diego Jewish Academy. This summer Sydney was selected to be a North American fellow for Camp Szarvas (SAR-vash), an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) camp in Szarvas, Hungary. Szarvas is Hungarian for deer.

Camp Szarvas attracts over 1,500 campers from over 20 different countries including Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, India, Albania, Turkey, Israel, and the US. The camp has been central to Jewish renewal in budding Jewish communities within the region. By keeping the camp local and attracting Jews from around the world, Camp Szarvas is able to instill a sense of Jewish peoplehood that is unparalleled in the current Hungarian Jewish community.

In an effort to expose Hungarian youth to other Jews from around the world, the camp established a fellowship program. Each summer up to 75 North American teens are selected to be “American Ambassadors” through their fellowship program. Fellows, in addition to representing North America, are given a unique opportunity to discover their own Jewish identity while also discovering new and shared traditions of Jewish teens from around the world. Teens are encouraged to apply to be a fellow on their own without their friends, which is contrary to most other teen experiences. This is done to emphasize the role that each fellow must play in getting to know new people and building new relationships.

The following is a conversation that I had with Sydney shortly after she returned from Camp Szarvas:

Darren: Tell me about your camp experience this summer.

Sydney: We all met in New York. The camp likes to encourage teens to participate in the fellowship without people you know, so we are all meeting each other for the first time in the airport. We then got on a plane with Rabbi Seth Braunstein, the director of the Szarvas Fellowship, and traveled to Budapest where we celebrated Shabbat with the Israeli and Indian fellows. After Budapest we took a bus to Camp Szarvas which is in the Hungarian countryside.

A typical day at Camp Szarvas would involve waking up and going to mifkad – which is a time where we say good morning to each country and say it in different languages. We would have different activities throughout the day. In our fellowship group we would have something called “Jewish Journeys” where every kid throughout the session would talk about their Jewish Journey – their denomination, their beliefs, their parent’s beliefs, their entire Jewish background.

We would have other activities throughout the day like going swimming with teens from Ukraine and Israeli dancing with Hungarians. At the end of the day we would have a night activity either just for the Americans or with the entire camp. Camp wide programs would usually focus on events in Judaism or Jewish values. Many of the Hungarian kids that come to this camp don’t have a big Jewish background. Some of them may not even define themselves as Jews, but are technically Jewish.

Darren: How were you selected to be a fellow at Camp Szarvas?

Sydney: The application process was very detailed. I had a 4-page application to fill out. I wrote an essay about a challenge that I faced and how I overcame it and my Jewish identity. I remember that I wrote about Friendship Circle and my involvement with their Camp Let Loose program for kids with special needs. My parents also had to fill out a form for the application, and I had to get a recommendation from someone who knows me well.

Darren: Have you gone to overnight camp before? If so, how does that experience compare to going to Camp Szarvas?

Sydney: I have been going to Camp Ramah in California since I was in third grade for about a month each summer. My favorite part about Camp Szarvas was that a lot of the things we did were similar to the activities at Ramah. We did similar Israeli dances and sang a lot of the same songs. That is just really cool to hear people from around the world singing the same songs we sing in California.

Darren: Was it a similar Shabbat experience?

Sydney: The thing is Ramah is a conservative camp. It was interesting that Szarvas had a mechitza (partition that separates men and women during prayer) –because there are some more orthodox kids there. So it was a different Shabbat experience with similar Shabbat tunes and some of the same songs.

Darren: Tell me about the most meaningful relationship that you made at Camp Szarvas.

Sydney: I just thought this was a cool moment. I have a lot of family in Hungary—my paternal grandfather was Hungarian. My cousin is part of a well known rock band in Budapest—Ivan & the Parazolfunny thing was that the band was playing at the San Diego County Fair while I was in Hungary! I was talking with one girl that I met, Dorci who lives in Budapest, and I was telling her about my cousin and his band. She knew about his band. I thought it was cool to know something about their culture. I still stay in touch with Dorci.

Darren: After having this experience, what do you now know about yourself and your Jewish community?

Sydney: I now know how Judaism can be different all over the world which makes me think about how I see Judaism in a global way. I think it opened my eyes to the different ways you can be Jewish and how people identify as Jews. Especially in the fellowship program there were kids from Jewish day schools, public schools, yeshivas – I really learned a lot about what is a Jew through many different perspectives. We obviously overlap in many ways in our values, but we are also different and I learned a lot about my Jewish identity by hearing about other kids in our Jewish Journeys program.

There are many ways for teens to explore their Jewish identities. Sydney happened to find one that took her half way across the world and opened her eyes to the different faces of Judaism.

There are two things that you should know about my conversation with Sydney during this interview. The first was that she was grateful to her parents and a family friend who was a participant several years ago for bringing this opportunity to her attention. The second was her disappointment that there are not more teens from San Diego that go on this program.

To find out more about Sydney’s experience or to get more information about Camp Szarvas, please email me at [email protected]. I would be happy to put you in touch with Sydney or Rabbi Seth Braunstein. To find other great experiences for San Diego Jewish teens go to

Darren Schwartz is the director of the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative. To contact Darren about opportunities for Jewish teens or in response to this article, please email [email protected].



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