Budapest Hungary for renewed Jewish life

Over the years I have done far more than my share of traveling to Jewish communities around the world. As far back as 1970 I had the opportunity to make my first trip to visit with Jewish communities in what were then Communist countries. Last week I made my most recent such trip – to Budapest. 
Now I have been to Hungary before – several times. But as far as the Jewish community is concerned, it seems – “the times they are a changin’.” Or maybe they are not changing. Budapest has one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. But it is a Jewish life of severe contrasts, institutional stagnation, corruption, lack of quality Jewish education, and virtually no attractive quality programming for committed youth.
For many decades the major Jewish denomination in Hungary has been Neologue. There is an Orthodox/HABAD presence and a very tiny Reform presence too. But most of the major shuls are affiliated with Neologue. So too is the rabbinical school, The Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest.
So what exactly is Neologue? Some would simply categorize it as somewhere between Orthodox and Reform. Others would say a schizophrenic cross between Conservative, Reform and Orthodox. Separate seating is maintained for a congregation of highly assimilated, uneducated congregants who seem to have preciously little in common with their clergy. The name comes from the Greek meaning “new thought.” Founders of the movement, organized in the 1860s, were traditional in religious practice while their ideology was liberal. Thus an historic bond with the Conservative Movement was forged. This bond continues, in theory, even today.
But what do the Neologue and Masorti/Conservative movements have in common these days? I would say preciously little. None of the Neologue synagogues permits mixed seating. The rabbi of Europe’s largest synagogue (size-not attendance) has just ruled that women may no longer sing in the synagogue choir. Take the hike from the Dohany shul entry to the rabbis’ lavish throne on the Bima (for which you must be in good shape as it is a long way) and you will find no women sitting in the main seating area. Sadly, you are unlikely to find many young people either. Even in the sparsely attended service participants who know how to daven may be few and far between.
There are, I am told, no Talmud classes taught in the Rabbinical School. How can that be? The Talmud teachers are Orthodox and refuse to enter the JTS building. How pathetic that a movement respects itself so little that such a thing can be allowed. It goes without saying that women are not admitted nor are Out Gays ordained.
So who is drawn to these synagogues? Most Hungarian Jews (some estimates put the number at one hundred thousand) are not affiliated. Most of the community leaders (excluding clergy) are not observant. But money makes the world go round – and generous government funding is provided for those who are part of the establishment. For the fledgling Masorti groups (MAROM and Dor Hadash) not a Forint is budgeted. This is sad as MAROM and Dor Hadash is where one will find committed young Jews.
I had the honor to spend Pesach with members of MAROM (the Masorti social group for young adults, Dor Hadash (the soon to be Masorti affiliated Minyan) and Moishe House of Budapest.   I do not use word honor lightly. These young people, with virtually no local religious models, have created a welcoming egalitarian Minyan that encourages creativity within a reasonably traditional framework. Weekly Shabbat meals, open to all, are held at Beit Moishe where Dor Hadash usually meets. A popular pub, Sirály (with a bit of an anarchistic feel) was opened for social gathering and for the arts. Most of the participants seem to be in their twenties, although there is a sprinkling of those who are older. All of this in District VII’s Kiraly Street in the old Jewish Quarter. This now “hip” neighborhood is also home to several shuls, the Jewish Museum (where Israelis who would rarely step into a synagogue pay for the privilege), and eateries.
In Israel and in the Americas most of us define who is a Jew in a very specific way. A Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. But among the younger participants in the renewal of Jewish life definitions are far more flexible. Just how many are Jewish by a Halachic standard is not clear. But since Halachic decisions are in the hands of a religious establishment that has been largely blind to the changing needs of its own community – the approach set by the Neologue (or by the Orthodox) rabbis is not necessarily embraced. In fact a Jewish community newspaper had the temerity to mock those practicing Jews who wish to involve women in ritual life.
So what do we do about a flowering young Jewish community, surrounded by an ossified indifferent leadership? I would suggest that we offer support to the best of our ability. We open our minds to find creative solutions to bring those who are not Jewish, but who live as Jews, into the fold. Some have suggested that it is time to open the discussion on Patralinal descent as a definition that would allow for greater inclusiveness. Others recognize the special status of Zera Yisrael (those with Jewish roots). Some rabbis recognize this as an Eit La’asot (a time that calls for brazen Halachic thinking to deal with this new reality).
I had the opportunity to meet with some of the few Neologue rabbis that belong to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Some of these rabbis have dared to exposed the communal corruption and financial shenanigans. They have made the effort to serve those who turn to them. But most of the Neologue rabbis seem pleased to enjoy living on a government dole and allow time to pass them by while doing so very little to engage those that could be serious, committed, active Jewish leaders.
Dor Hadash does not have a rabbi. It is lay led (although some view Rabbi David Lazar, rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sweden, as a spiritual advisor and mentor). Masorti Europe too has taken an interest in the community.
Even for my short visit during which I met rabbis, community leaders, taught, watched as the Kitchen was transformed into KP, and led a Seder – absolutely no funding was made available to me by my own Movement. I bore the entire cost. Yet it is programming that needs to be funded. When rabbis and Jewish educators are willing to give of their time – we cannot allow our own organizations to pinch pennies. I can only hope that future visitors, invited by community activists, will receive tools beyond a pat on the back.
The Reform Movement has rabbinic training programs in England, Holland, and in Germany. The Masorti Movement does not have a Rabbinical program in Europe (although there is some quite and hopeful talk that this may change). It is not sufficient to send American or Israeli rabbis to places in Central and Eastern Europe. We must train those who come armed with knowledge of the local culture and language. And while I relate here to the parts of Europe that were previously under Communist control – we need to train Masorti rabbis for other parts of Europe too. Where we have such rabbis (e.g. Germany, France, Sweden, Britain) we have proven our ability to grow the Jewish communities.
We cannot wait until these communities agree to adopt our ways. We must be prepared to play on the home court as it exists today. This will not be easy. It will not come cheap (although the cost of not doing so is unimaginable).
Ariel Polyak, of Dor Hadash, was kind enough to play host to my visit. Anna Balint, of Beit Moshe, showed me great warmth in what otherwise felt like a cold community. Adam Schonberger, manager of Sirlay, showed me what initiative can produce.
“Our task is not to compete the work” (this must be done by the locals) “but neither are we free to ignore the task” of assisting to revitalize Judaism in parts of the world that need our help.