Singing and Silence in Hungary

The American Fellows at Szarvas before Shabbat. The author is in the second row, 5th from the right.
The American Fellows at Szarvas before Shabbat. The author is in the second row, 5th from the right.

“Heveinu Shalom Alecheim” reverberates throughout the dining hall, coming from the mouths of more than 400 campers aged 7-18, all of whom are crowded into the aisles, dancing and excited to be a part of this community. Chairs are left askew as kids go running to dance. The ruach in the room is palpable. A train of campers weaves between the tables, wending its way around other groups dancing in circles and jumping up and down gleefully.

Some ten minutes later, the music comes to an end, and a host of flushed and sweaty campers make their way back to their seats. Birkat HaMazon commences, no less spirited than the just-concluded dancing. As the last chord dies out, the younger children shriek and dash for the doors while the teenagers laugh and wait for the chaos to clear before ambling toward the exits.

* * *

My Szarvas experience is best defined by a dichotomy of noise and silence: camp was made up of the loud moments, dancing and cheering with this spirited international community, and the silent ones, filled with meaning, reflection, and thoughtful discussion.

At 7:30 each morning, I wake up to an exuberant “Good morning!” blaring from the loudspeaker, repeated in each of the languages spoken at camp, followed by music playing on the speakers until Mifkad, the campwide morning meeting, starts at 8:30. At Mifkad, the entire camp greets each other in different languages. One group will wish another group “good morning” in the recipient’s native language, who will then pass the “good morning” to another group until each group has greeted and been greeted.

The American group dancing with campers from the former Yugoslavia.

Meals in the dining hall truly encapsulate the Szarvas experience. The room is filled to bursting with hundreds of campers from more than ten countries, all speaking different languages. Szarvas is all about balancing the individual identities of each country with the communal identity of the camp as a whole. Campers sit at tables by country, each in their own individual groups, but all of the tables are a part of the Szarvas community.

Periodically, the dining hall erupts in cheers, each one led by a different table. The campers at that table will stand on their chairs, screaming the cheers to encourage everyone else to respond, exuberant and spirited. One cheer leads to another, often a continuous progression throughout entire meals, contributing to the animated cacophony that is a Szarvas meal.

One night, the camp gathers in Mifkad after an activity about Israel. Standing under the stars, the whole camp sings together, “Eretz Yisrael Sheli Yafah v’Gam Porachat.” Some campers know all the words and some know none, so at first, the music teacher leads line by line, having each country sing separately to ensure that everyone can sing along. Then, the whole camp sings together, dancing and cheering. Together, we stand in the dark and watch a slideshow of Israel’s achievements, and I feel such pride in this community. We are all so different, from a plethora of countries and varied Jewish backgrounds, but at this moment, I feel such an intense sense of unity. All of us are united by the fact that we are Jewish, by our innate connection to Judaism and Israel, by our spirited singing and dancing to Jewish songs. We are all a part of this international Szarvas community.

* * *

The quiet moments of my experience were sitting in circles with the Americans, our tight-knit group of twenty-two students, two madrichim, and a unit head having thought-provoking and deep discussions. Over the course of the program, we sat in many such circles. The first one was at JFK before our plane took off, sitting on the ground just past check-in introducing ourselves with our names, ages, and the coolest place we’ve ever traveled. Our next circle was at a park in Budapest, the first place we went straight from the airport the day we arrived.

From then on, our circles became much more thoughtful. The next morning was Shabbat, so we sat in a circle outside of shul to share our thoughts on prayer: Does God listen to our prayers? What are our favorite environments in which to pray? On Saturday night, we went to a park and said Havdalah overlooking the Danube River and the Chain Bridge, both lit up in the dark night. We stood in a circle with our arms around each other and sang together, relishing the final moments of Shabbat and feeling so connected to these people whom we had known for fewer than 48 hours.

We left Budapest on Sunday morning for Szarvas, the camp in the Hungarian countryside where we would spend the next two weeks. There, these conversations continued during the two slots each day allocated to programs for the American group alone. One slot was always a peulah planned by our madrichim, a discussion or activity about what makes someone a Jew, our Jewish identities, Israel, pluralism, or being an American at Szarvas. Our group had a very wide spectrum of views on any given issue, leading to many disagreements, but what makes Szarvas special is how respectful the community is. We could disagree vehemently, but the way we discussed controversial issues allowed everyone to express their opinions and feel that they were taken seriously.

The sunset at Szarvas.

These discussions were one of my favorite parts of Szarvas because the diversity of opinions was much different than anything I’ve experienced in my years of day-school education and attendance at a Modern Orthodox synagogue. The breakdown of our group, so unlike that of my Modern Orthodox school, made me an outlier on issues in which I have never been an outlier in my day-school career.

The second American slot of the day was for Jewish Journeys. Everyone had the chance to share his or her story at any point over the course of the program when they felt ready, rehashing their relationship with Judaism, how it has changed over the years, their religious struggles, and anything else they thought was pertinent. When we met for Jewish Journeys, we would sit quietly in the circle until someone was ready to take their turn, hearing only the natural sounds of leaves rustling in the wind and occasionally the laughter of other campers nearby. After each person finished, we would sit in silence broken only by the rustling of the leaves until the next person volunteered. In some cases, this took close to five minutes, a long time to sit in silence in a large group. At the beginning of the program, this silence felt unnatural, strange, and awkward. You felt like giggling, or like you should fill the silence with “um,” or “I’m so tired,” or pull your phone out so it seemed like you were busy. But in our circle, you didn’t do any of those things. You just sat in silence and waited.

Over time, the silence began to feel more natural. It felt peaceful, welcoming, inviting. We all supported each other by showing that we would wait as long as necessary for the next person to feel comfortable sharing their story. No one would rush you. We would be there waiting whenever you were ready.

I also learned that the best things come out of silence. If we learn to wait out those silences, to welcome them instead of feeling awkward, on the other side of the silence will be conversations that are much more meaningful than the filler we are used to. At Szarvas, I learned that silence can be a blessing; silences lead to deeper discussions.

Listening to each other’s stories, everyone was so respectful. When you finished sharing your story, you concluded with the word ״דברתי,״ Hebrew for “I have spoken,” and the group would respond ״שמענו,״ or “We have heard” and snap to applaud the person who had shared. Everyone in that circle respected and trusted each other, leading to an extremely open and honest environment, which was one of the most valuable things about Jewish Journeys. What we said often led to other discussions about the topic, but what was said in the circle stayed in the circle and could not be repeated outside of it. This trust created an environment more honest and open than any I have ever experienced before. At home, we worry that we will be judged for what we say, that it will affect how our classmates or our families perceive us. At Szarvas, we all felt comfortable sharing the truth, saying things we’ve never shared before with anyone else, making our circles extremely powerful.

I believe that these circles within the American group are the way that I was able to turn 24 strangers into 24 friends over the course of only two weeks. I know these campers and counselors better than many students I’ve been going to school with for years. Sharing our Jewish Journeys, often including the deepest parts of ourselves, brought us closer in a way that nothing else ever could.

My Szarvas experience is best explained by this contrast between sound and silence. I gained so much from each of the two disparate components. The thought-provoking silence with the American group that exposed me to new ideas and allowed me to be honest about myself and have thoughtful conversations I’ve never had the chance to have before. I also gained so much from the stimulating, exciting, spirited participation in the international camp experience, being part of this inclusive, international, diverse but distinctly Jewish diaspora community that is so vibrant and alive. What’s unique about Szarvas is how these two halves mesh together, easily shifting from one to the other in the rhythm of the days, coming together as a very worthwhile way to spend two weeks.

About the Author
Josephine Schizer is a senior at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, The Rampage, and a member of the Fresh Ink for Teens editorial board. Additionally, she is Co-Captain of the Ramaz Model Congress team and organizes a monthly women’s tefillah group at her synagogue, Congregation Ramath Orah. Next year, she will be attending Harvard University.
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