Shabbat afternoon I sat on the edge of the Danube River in Budapest, tossing stones into the water below. 20 metres to my right lay the memorial that marks the spot where 73 years ago, the Jews were marched from the nearby Budapest Ghetto. They removed their shoes and left them on the river bank to be collected and later sold off. They were tied three people together, and one of them was shot into the Danube. The other two were left to drown with the first.
A few hours later, I sat on a dark patch of grass outside of the Four Seasons Hotel, along with 40 high school students from Israel and North America. With our arms around each other, we sang the blessings of Havdallah, the ceremony which takes place at the end of Shabbat to celebrate the separation between the uniqueness of Shabbat, and the significance of the rest of the week.
These teenagers were on their way to Szarvas, a summer camp in Southern Hungary run by the JDC and the Lauder Foundation, which every year brings 2000 Jewish children together in order to rebuild Jewish life in Eastern Europe and foster Jewish peoplehood around the world. From Turkey to Serbia, Belarus to Prague, Moldova to America, each of the four sessions brings together 500 chanichim (campers) ranging from age seven to age 18. Many of the leaders at camp are Eastern European Jews who grew up at Szarvas, and are now returning to bring up a new generation. Last summer I had the privilege to work as a madricha for the American delegation, and this summer I led a group of young adults from India who were training to become madrichim back home.
Many of the activities at camp are normal summer camp activities, like swimming and crafts and ropes course, except instead of doing them with only your bunk, you're joined by another delegation, so you have swimming with Ukraine, crafts with Israel, and ropes course with Slovakia. For many of the campers, this is their first time meeting and getting to know their Jewish peers from around the world. For me as well, working with people from so many different countries was a totally new experience, and was both challenging and rewarding in a lot of ways. During camp-wide programs, the leader speaks in English, and then passes the microphone down a line of translators who translate each sentence into Hebrew, Russian, Hungarian, and Turkish (and even more languages during other sessions). I helped run a program on environmentalism for the youngest group of Hungarian campers, and their madricha had to translate everything I said.
But there's also the fun of it: The fun of celebrating camper's birthdays by singing happy birthday in 15 different languages, of dance nights listening to Estonian electro-pop, of trying to make small talk with little children who can hardly tell you their name; The excitement of finding out that Jews around the world do some things the exact same way I do, and do some things totally differently; the long nights staying up chatting with young Jewish leaders who are doing the same thing I am so many miles away from me.
And then there's learning about different communities and the ways that they function. Many of the campers don't find out that they're Jewish until they're older, as a result of communism and family trauma. I love hearing about people's families and the kinds of Jewish environments that they were raised in. Many of the madrichim are leaders of their Jewish communities back home, and it's crazy that staff from the JCCs in Moscow and Prague and Mumbai can all sit together and eat breakfast in a small town in Hungary.
Before Havdallah on the Danube, the American and Israeli groups shared their family histories with each other. My family came from Poland, and moved to Canada in 1927. Many of the chanichim had similar answers, coming from Hungary and Romania and Poland just before or after the War. We spoke about how our growing up in North America and Israel was really by chance, by decisions that our great-grandparents made or fell into, and how we could have so easily been a part of the Hungarian or Latvian delegations, or not been a part of it at all.
On the last night of pre-camp, all of the madrichim went to a restaurant in town on the banks of the Koros River. We stood together, young Jewish leaders from around the world, dancing until the early morning. I looked around the room as American pop hits blared from the speakers, and all around me I saw a new generation of survivors - people who were born into the shadow of the Holocaust, and are working hard every day to rebuild Jewish life across Europe.
Out of my Great-Grandfather's 10 siblings, eight of them immigrated to Canada with him. The two that remained in Poland, along with most of my Great-Grandmother's family, were murdered in the ghettos and camps of Poland. In that way I suppose I'm a survivor too, in a different way than the Czech and Hungarian madrichim at camp, but a survivor of the heights and depths of Jewish history, a perpetrator of this religion and culture which have become our own, all around the world.
Yesterday was Tisha B'Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, both on this day, one in 586 BC, and the other in 70 CE. It's considered the saddest day of the Jewish year, the one day when we focus on all of the trauma and hardships that the Jewish people have historically faced.
In the evening I sat on a mat on the cold stone floor of the synagogue here in Mumbai with 20 other community members, and we listened to the reading of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, a graphic collection of poetry describing the desecration of Jerusalem and her punishment for the hatred of her people. Last summer I was in Venice for Tisha B'Av, seated on the floor of the Chabad House in the centre of the old Jewish Ghetto (we don't sit on chairs on Tisha B'Av, as a sign of giving up material comfort). The summer before that I was on a rooftop in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the summer before, in Tzfat.
Listening to the traditional Bene Israel chant of Eicha, I was reminded that all Jews are survivors. We all share a tradition, and we're all part of the same people. Regardless of whether we were brought up in Eastern Europe, or North America, or Israel, or Mumbai, we all inherit our history, and all share in the responsibility to carry it on.