In time for Hanukkah, Jewish life reignited in Hungarian town

In spite of the rain, dozens showed up at public lighting in Szentendre, about twenty kilometers north of Budapest.

The Danube river in Budapest, Hungary (photo credit: REUTERS/LASZLO BALOGH)
The Danube river in Budapest, Hungary
(photo credit: REUTERS/LASZLO BALOGH)
On Sunday, which marked the first night of Hanukkah, rain pelted the Hungarian town of Szentendre, about 20 kilometers north of Budapest. The situation did not seem promising for a prolonged outdoor event, such as a public menorah lighting in the square. However, several dozen people still showed up.
“The rain didn’t help, but there were about 60 to 65 people who came to the event, more than I could have hoped for in this weather. It was very nice,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Myers told Chabad.org.
Together with his wife, Tzvia, Myers became the new Chabad emissary to the town a few months ago, according to the website of the Hassidic group for whom sending representatives to support Jewish life all over the world has become a core mission.
When the couple moved to Szentendre, a Chabad Center and Torah scroll were inaugurated in the town, and two similar events were held in nearby Budapest, an occasion that embodied the tremendous Jewish revival Hungary is experiencing after the immense devastation brought about by the Holocaust and afterward by the Communist regime.
Up to 600,000 of the country’s 820,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
According to the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, 229 Jews were living in Szentendre in 1930, in a small but thriving community which had inaugurated a synagogue in 1850 and a school in 1860.
In 1944, all the community members were first forced into a ghetto and then deported to Nazi death camps.
Some 40 people survived the war and moved back to the town, where they renovated the synagogue and erected a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Among Myers’ most powerful experiences since starting his work in Szentendre, has been an encounter with a 94-year-old man who came to the family’s sukkah in October.
“While not [having been] affiliated with organized Judaism for years, he was extremely excited to see us there,” Myers told Chabad.org, explaining that in his childhood, the man had attended a cheder, a traditional Jewish elementary school.
“Last week, we invited him for Shabbat services. [Although] a bit lost in the beginning, his eyes lit up when I began singing ‘Lecha Dodi’ [the melodious prayer that opens the Friday-night Shabbat service],” he said. “He exclaimed loudly, ‘This, I remember!’”
Besides the synagogue, which was already operating for major Jewish holidays, the new Chabad center in Szentendre features a restaurant and an art gallery.
“Our Chabad House, Chai Gallery by name, is and will be an encompassing center of Jewish life. In it, we aim to harmonize all of the various aspects of Jewish life – from the religious to the cultural to the social elements,” the rabbi said.
“We have had much positive feedback,” he concluded. “The locals have been extremely welcoming. They have opened their hearts to us and have a strong desire to strengthen Jewish life here.”