Participants at the Shabbat program
Participants at the Shabbat program Nándi Radnai

Some 200 Jewish teenagers from 16 European countries gathered in Budapest this past weekend (May 13-15) for "Shabbat Across Europe."

The three-day international event was organized by CTeen, the Chabad Teen Network, together with EMIH - the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

Over the course of the weekend, participants visited Budapest’s historic and Jewish sites in a celebration of unity, togetherness, and Jewish identity. Teens from Austria, Slovakia, Germany, France, Sweden – and even Ukraine and Turkey – traveled to Budapest with their local rabbis, rebbetzins, and youth leaders. Among the highlights were visits to Buda Castle, and the historic synagogues in the old Jewish district. The teenagers brought a great energy and enthusiasm to these iconic Hungarian Jewish sites.

The group of Ukrainian teens travelled from Berlin and Vienna, where they have been living since the start of the war. Some were accompanied by Rabbi Jonatan Yakovenko, who like the teens, is currently living in Berlin.

“Having the chance to visit a new place is like a breath of fresh air for us,” said Rabbi Yakovenko. ’’The atmosphere is amazing, and feels like it did before — the kids feel that they can be Jewish and proud. I thank the organization for allowing us to be here. The fact that we are unable to return to our homes is very hard for all of us, especially for the children who miss their parents. We will stay strong until the war is over and we can go home.”

Teens in his group agreed.

“It is so good to be here - the program is really interesting,” said Maya Takshina, a 14-year old Ukrainian girl who came to the event from Vienna. ’’My parents are in Dnipro (Ukraine) - my mother went back because she missed my father. Fortunately, I can call them,” she added.

Another 14-year old from Ukraine described her situation. “I left my home two weeks after the war began but many of my friends couldn’t leave Dnipro,” said Misha Stolberg.

“At a joint commemoration at the Shoes on the Danube Bank Monument, I told the teens that 78 years ago, innocent children and adults were shot right on the banks of the Danube by the Hungarian Arrow Cross,” said Rabbi Shlomo Köves, Chief Rabbi of EMIH -The Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities. “On the one hand it was sad to be there, but on the other hand, I was happy to show the world that Jewish existence – and the life of the Jewish community – is eternal, and that Jewish life is again flourishing in Hungary and all of Europe.”

The weekend was filled with many inspiring presentations and quality time with their religious leaders.

“I feel like I’m at home,” commented Hinda Zaklos, a 14-year-old from from Zagreb, Croatia. “Everybody is so kind, the programs are fun, and we have something to do every minute. What I liked best was sitting on the grass with many famous rabbis and rebbetzins, where we could ask questions about things that interest us.”

The group welcomed Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) with services in the remodeled historic Óbuda Synagogue, built in 1821.

“What a success to see so many teenagers from all over Europe come together for Shabbat, to see how happy they are, and most importantly, how very very proud they are of their Judaism,” said Rabbi Zalmon Raskin, who traveled from Vienna. “Being in some very unique places, including this historic Óbuda synagogue, and to see it filled with teenagers who are are singing, dancing, praying, and eating together, is truly special. Especially knowing that many of them face challenges every day in school just for being Jewish, being together with other Jews and other Jewish teenagers is like heaven.”

The weekend symbolized a number of victories, explained CTeen International Director Rabbi Shimon Rivkin.

“I call it a weekend of triumph for these youth: triumph over COVID, because they are emerging from a time when they had to be separated; and triumph over what the Jewish people endured so many years ago in this country, as we know. Singing songs at the Danube River was very empowering, very much a moment of triumph. And there is a third triumph, for the Ukrainian refugees now living in Berlin or Dusseldorf. The ability to come together and feel this unity, this togetherness, and this bond with their Judaism, and be encouraged to act with some goodness and kindness, is a triumph. We know that ultimately, good will prevail over evil in the world, and that’s what these teens have been experiencing in the last 72 hours,” added Rabbi Rivkin.

Given the diverse nature of the age and challenges of participants, the program was well-run, highly organized, with every detail was attended to.

“Everything was done with special care, especially given the many challenges these teenagers are dealing with, whether they live in a small community or have not any community,” observed Rebbetzin Reizy Zaklos, who accompanied a group from Zagreb, Croatia.

“Many of them are dealing with antisemitism and loneliness, and need a Jewish education to help them find real, deep-rooted courage, so they can feel proud of their Jewish identity. With Jewish education, they will be armed with the right explanations for themselves first, and be able to stand proudly in the face of others. This is very important, since we don’t know what lies ahead for these teenagers. We want them to stay Jewish, and based on the program and its content, CTeen is very much aware of that.”

With over 630 chapters in 44 countries on six continents, CTeen, the Chabad Teen Network, is the fastest-growing network of Jewish teens. Inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, CTeen combines fun, friendship, humanitarian outreach, mitzvah observance, and engaging Torah study in a nurturing environment. In Hungary, CTeen cooperates closely with EMIH - the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

“Because there aren’t very many 14- to 15-year-olds in Budapest’s Jewish communities , it was great to get to know so many people our age from all over Europe during this program,” said Sára Szanyi, 15, one of the many teens representing the Hungarian Jewish community.

Program participants
Program participants Nándi Radnai