BUDAPEST – “This is the best, most respectable answer to Nazism and anti-Semitism, which once removed us from here, and proof that the people of Israel live – Am Israel Chai,” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said on Sunday, at the rededication of the Óbuda Synagogue in Budapest.
In a ceremony attended by Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, local dignitaries and rabbis, as well as some 1,500 members of the Jewish community, Metzger recited a prayer of thanks that after more that 50 years, and a few days before Rosh Hashana, “these walls will again be witness to prayer and a Torah scroll.”
The Israeli chief rabbi, who met with new Hungarian President Pál Schmitt earlier in the day, noted the Hungarian government’s support of the local “religious renaissance” in Jewish life. Letters of blessing from President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi were read at the event.
The reopening of Hungary’s oldest synagogue, built in 1820 (when it replaced one from 1737), marks another step in the arduous resurgence of Jewish life in the country after Nazism and decades of an antireligious Communist regime.
It was young, Hungarianborn Rabbi Slomó Köves, head of the Orthodox United Hungarian Jewish Congregation, who last year began to seek out a building that could serve as a synagogue to accommodate the growing community’ needs. He suggested to realestate developer Gábor Futó a certain structure that was on the market. Futó rejected that option, already knowing which building would serve instead.
In 1993, 17-year-old Futó took part in an televised atomic physics competition for youth. In one of the final stages of the contest, the participants had to determine where North was, using a radioactive element.
The event took place in a old, yellow neoclassical building, serving as the television studio, near the Danube River in the Obuda neighborhood. Previously, the structure housed a textile museum. But Futó knew that he was standing in a synagogue.
Given that the Jewish place of prayer would be pointing eastward, to Jerusalem, Futó took what he thought was an educated guess, based on what appeared to be the front of the building’s interior.
“I was actually wrong,” he told The Jerusalem Post
with a laugh on Sunday. “It was impossible to tell, since the building was in such bad shape.”
Despite that error, young Futó won first place, and ever since was disturbed by the fact that the Jewish place of prayer was serving ends so alien to its purpose.
So when Köves approached him, he knew that the old building, which the television station had in the meanwhile left, was the perfect choice to once again host Jewish prayer in its capacity as the Obuda Synagogue, and used all his energy to make that happen.
To Futó, there is nothing questionable about reaffirming Jewish presence in a continent that saw history’s worst atrocities against Jews.
“Jews have been here for many centuries, my own family has been here since the 18th century,” he said. “This is a strong community, not necessarily in the religious sense, but rather bound through communal aspects, a group belonging.”
There are believed to be 100,000 Jews living in Hungary, though not all consider themselves as such, or would be considered as such according to Halacha.
There is great thirst among young Jews for their religious birthright, which was denied to the past two generations, Futó said.
“The Holocaust and following socialism erased the Jewish tradition, but after the change of regime Jewish agencies were allowed entry,” he said. “My grandfather attended a Jewish school, but my parents didn’t have that opportunity. In today’s free world, we can travel to Israel” and learn about our Jewish heritage and culture, he said.
“This is a reversed situation of the Jewish directive ‘you shall teach your sons’ – in our case, it is the sons who are providing the parents with the information on Judaism,” Futó said.
Besides facilitating the efforts with the authorities to regain the building and the developmental work, Futó and his Israeli wife, Shiran, also donated a Torah scroll to the synagogue, “to the reborn community, in the hope of understanding and acceptance, in the memory of our grandparents who lived through inhumanity,” as the embroidery on the scroll’s cover says.
Not only members of the Jewish community see great significance in the restoration of the synagogue.
“The renaissance of religious values is important to us; we are after all a conservative moderate right-wing party,” Deputy Prime Minister Semjén told the Post
shorty before Sunday’s ceremony. “But the renewal of this synagogue is particularly heartwarming for two reasons. First, after the Communist regime that used holy sites as warehouses, prayers can once again be offered from here. The other reason lies in the fact that under the socialist regime, Hungarian Jews were forced into one community. This synagogue enables the Jewish community its due multifariousness. It is not the role of the Hungarian government to decide for the Jews in which synagogue they should pray,” he said.
The extreme-Right JOBBIK party, whose xenophobic platform is a cause for
concern not only for the Gypsies but also for the Jewish community and
moderate politicians, won more than 16 percent of the vote in April’s
elections. But at the same time, the conservative moderate right-wing
Fidesz-KDNP party, which formed the government, is indicating that its
pro-religion stances are applicable to the Jewish community.
Of the major Jewish groups in Hungary, the Neolog Judaism movement, the
largest and equatable to the Conservative movement, managed to stay
afloat during the Communist regime, and its governmental recognition
carried over after the Iron Curtain fell.
As a result, critics say, there is still not an egalitarian division of
state funds to the Jewish groups, which besides Köves’s include a Chabad
community headed by Rabbi Oberlander Baruch and the ultra-Orthodox
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