Budapest is undergoing a Jewish renaissance

JEWISH WORLD: Renewing a synagogue is always a good thing. It cannot be made for the occasional tourist or even streams of tourists, who are not the ones to stay and keep the community going.

 RABBI SHLOMO KOVES, chief rabbi of the Associations of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Chabad Hungary.  (photo credit: ZSOLT DEMECS)
RABBI SHLOMO KOVES, chief rabbi of the Associations of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Chabad Hungary.
(photo credit: ZSOLT DEMECS)

BUDAPEST – Budapest, a modern city that bears the pentimenti of its history, is a city of contradictions. As in most urban centers today, graffiti contrasts with historic church spires that are adjacent to franchise stores for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Zara, and, of course, McDonald’s.

All of this is set against a backdrop of wide streets, verdant parks, civilized traffic, and – noticeable for their absence – hardly any blaring horns.

At the historic rededication of the Ohel Eszter Synagogue in a side street of its central downtown location, there was a show of unity of the main players, including Chief Rabbi the Associations of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH) Rabbi Shlomo Koves, of Chabad Hungary, President of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities Gabi Keszler, Rabbi Baruch Oblerlander of Chabad, Rabbi Jonatan Megyeri, director of communications of EMIH, as well as the secretary of the religious affairs ministry.

There was at least one member of parliament in the audience. The new rabbi who will be running the new synagogue was presented with his signed certificate of ordination at the event attended by a couple of hundred people.

The joyful celebration included finishing the writing of a Torah scroll and dancing the scroll under a bridal canopy to the newly refurbished several rooms forming the synagogue, off of Kazinczy Street in the Pecs side of the city. It originally was founded in 1895.

Keszler, who grew up in Budapest, remembers that the small synagogue was something of a distant vision, a synagogue that had been “hidden away and nearly forgotten about 40 years ago.”

He had a dream to reopen the synagogue, located exactly in the same area where the ghetto was during World War II. Eszter, in whose memory the synagogue was named, was the daughter of the original donor of the synagogue. She died young of illness, and in an eerie repetition of history, the building contractor of the renovations also lost a daughter around a century later.

A battle of synagogues

 ATTENDEES AT the rededication ceremony. (credit: ZSOLT DEMECS)
ATTENDEES AT the rededication ceremony. (credit: ZSOLT DEMECS)

As is the nature of things, controversy has accompanied the move. If the old Jewish joke is that it is expensive to found a synagogue because one needs funds for two – one synagogue to go to and one to shun – that is part of the story here, too. There was a very small showing of perhaps 10 protesters who are also from the haredi ultra-Orthodox world.

There was great division, and strong differences of opinion on how to best assure Jewish continuity, and to help secure a Jewish future for the Jewish residents of the city.

It was clear from the visits to the various sites we visited that the most important asset to the Chabad community, EMIH, is their children. They have large families and they actively seek out and are open to including in the fold those who are among the “lost” along the way. They seek to build community and welcome all Jews.

Yitzhak Mais, a well-known developer of museums worldwide, who is involved in planning the upcoming Hungarian Museum of the Holocaust in Budapest under the auspices of EMIH, says that he sees that Chabad “wants to create a renaissance and buildup of a sustainable Jewish community.”

Chabad, is a 250-year-old movement that emphasizes bringing happiness into daily practice, rather than sometimes rigid correctness of ritual observance. The post-World War II movement that rose following the great destruction of European Jewry was the vision of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who inspired Jews to bring Jewish institutions wherever there could be useful outposts in support of Jewish values.

The timing of the early ’60s and ’70s also segued with the mainstream counterculture that, through the music of Shlomo Carlebach (known as “the Singing Rabbi” and founder of the San Francisco House of Love and Prayer), The Jewish Catalog, and the afterglow of the Six Day War had enormous influence on a generation of Jewish seekers.

From academics giving lectures around the world to backpackers seeking adventure in remote pockets of nature, the welcome of Chabad houses is renowned. One could have access to kosher food, a minyan for Shabbat, and the opportunity to honor a parent while saying kaddish. One could revive one’s spiritual spark plugs with one’s community while immersed in exotic cultures.

Chabad is at its best when it creates an outpost in a place with little to no Jewish presence. The term sounds like a military one; not by accident, as the language of Chabad draws from the idea of being part of an army dedicated to bringing Jews closer to God. It is all an effort to let Judaism shine and keep Jews connected to Torah.

Yet, in much of the world, Chabad comes in where there often has been a long Jewish presence, sometimes of hundreds of years, or more. It is rarely a clean slate where they choose to invest their significant energies – and energy they have. European cities, and others, are rife with tales of fearless, sometimes even insensitive arrivals of the new kids on the block, so to speak.

Singular among the Eastern European countries, Hungary had a long and deep independent tradition of liturgy and customs. Further, in the post-Enlightenment era, there was tolerance of the Jews as full citizens. For instance, Jews were welcome in the army and could even make a career to garner a high rank without being nobility or Christian, unlike in Poland. For some of these deep cultural reasons, it is hard to see the tradition of centuries become less relevant.

Megyeri, of EMIH, relates that as a child whose parents were from Budapest, he had no idea that he was Jewish until he innocently repeated a joke he brought home from the public school in his Pecs neighborhood at the age of nine. Not even understanding what a Jew was, he learned more from the age of 14 when he attended a good academic school that happened to be Jewish but was picked due to its strong English program. He, too, was turned on by the musical zeitgeist, and a year later, at 15, chose to undergo his circumcision, his entry into the covenant of Judaism.

I WAS fortunate to visit Budapest in 2005, a mere 16 years following the end of  Communist rule in Hungary. There was not yet a scent of capitalism in the air. There was still a bare minimum of Jewish institutions; kosher restaurants were few and spare. I recall dairy products were shipped in from Vienna. There was one small bakery.

Our group, with baseball hats and beards among us, made an effort to blend in among the clean-shaven general population. As Megyeri pointed out as well, walking all over the city with him, there was absolutely no notice of the rabbi among us, so natural and unremarkable was it.

I also learned that under Nazi rule, the clearing out of Jews in Hungary started in the countryside, where the communities were small, and they were mostly taken directly to Auschwitz, as was my mother and her family. The melodic sing-song of spoken Hungarian swirling around me reminded me, of course, of my mother, Lee Feig Breuer, who was from Marmaros-Sighet in the Carpathian Mountains, her home in what is now Roumania.

But I also learned that the Budapest Jews had a higher chance of survival, since in the denser city, there were a few safe houses, protected buildings, some embassies that extended their support to the residents, and so on. Nonetheless, a few hundred meters from the parliament is the moving Shoes on the Danube memorial, conceived by film director Can Togay, with sculptor Gyula Pauer, to honor the Jews who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia belonging to the Arrow Cross Party in Budapest during the Second World War.

In an extra dollop of cynicism, they were told to remove their shoes, a valuable wartime commodity. Our guide said that the people were also tied together in an effort to save ammunition so that a couple of bullets would manage to topple several bodies at once. Witnesses described the river as having turned red.

Megyeri’s own grandmother was about to suffer this fate, but at the last minute was pulled from the line by a diplomat. This is probably the most powerful and brilliantly simple Holocaust memorial I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a few.

Ultimately, the singing that was heard during the festive rededication will continue to reverberate in the Ohel Eszter Synagogue for a long time to come, and ultimately that will be the future, not the ruffled feathers that are soon forgotten.

Renewing a synagogue is always a good thing. It cannot be made for the occasional tourist or even streams of tourists, who are not the ones to stay on the scene and keep the community going.