New kollel revives Jewish life in former ghetto

"The goal of this project is Jewish continuity and reaching out to the 100,000 Jews of Hungary."

hungary shoah memorial (photo credit:
hungary shoah memorial
(photo credit:
In Budapest's former ghetto, where once Jews were herded together before finding their deaths in concentration camps, Jewish life is being reborn thanks to two new communities that are taking root there. The first is the brainchild of Michael Flax, a young Jewish professional from England, who has moved 14 observant families from London to Budapest in a bid to energize the community. All the adult males in Flax's group are ordained rabbis or students of prestigious yeshivot in the UK, like those at Manchester and Gateshead, or studied in Israel. "The goal of this project is Jewish continuity and reaching out to the 100,000 Jews of Hungary," Flax said. "I interviewed over 20 families from different origins and decided to bring English families, because the English are more reserved... similar to the Hungarians." The group's new kollel, the Torah Academy of Budapest, is purposely located in the former ghetto. "We felt that by building the Jewish center in the middle of the former Jewish ghetto, we would pay respect to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust," Flax said. Prior to the WWII, the region was a major center of Jewish life. The Hungarian Jewish community was one of the largest in Europe, consisting of more than 800,000 Jews. However, of those who survived, most left for North America, Israel and Western Europe. The new kollel is called "The Torah Academy of Budapest," and will be dedicated to the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. The center will focus on renewing the customs of Hungarian Jewry. "The idea is to reach out to the people, offering them a chance to become familiar with Judaism," said Flax. "This is especially important in Budapest because the majority of Hungarian Jewish youth today did not have the opportunity to receive a Jewish education." Explaining why he joined the group, David Ruthenberg, who is living in the new kollel along with his family, said, "My grandmother was Hungarian and I came to Hungary to bring out the beauty of Jewish life." During the day, rabbis will study Hungarian and teach Torah and Talmud to adults and children, both in the academy and from the general community. The families coming to Hungary all have young children, who will be integrated into the local Jewish kindergarten. The women of these families will work as teachers. Where will the students come from? "Currently we have a community of 100,000 Jews, but most of them are not observant. However, we do have a small Orthodox and a Reform community," Flax said. "Our philosophy is to work in full cooperation with the local communities and local rabbis from all branches of Judaism." The outreach program will also be active in Vienna, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and will focus on exchanging students, both for Shabbatons and for study programs. "We also intend to take our students to Israel and Poland to observe all aspects of Judaism," Flax said. Fourteen new rabbis, Shabbatons and Jewish education seem like gigantic steps for the Jewish community in the former ghetto. Besides this program, there are currently about 1,200 Israeli students in Budapest today, mainly studying in medical schools. However, they lack any kind of Jewish student center. The new Torah Academy of Budapest's second project is providing just such a facility to unite the students, organize conferences with Israeli universities, and create a place for these students to socialize. A Beit Midrash will be available to those who want to deepen their Jewish education, along with Shabbat services and a cafeteria aimed to create what one of the new British newcomers to Budapest called "a home away from home for Israeli students." An Israeli kollel is also taking shape in Hungary. Kollel Lativ, founded by 12 Israelis and the Held family of Jerusalem, is located in the Dezsofi Shul in the former ghetto, and focuses on reaching out to the general public with morning and evening classes scheduled to meet the demands of busy Hungarian Jews. According to co-founder Avital Held, "There is a lot of interest in Jewish learning and experiencing the Jewish holidays, especially because many of these Hungarian Jews were never exposed to Judaism before. This naturally led to a great deal of assimilation." The kollel has a daily prayer minyan and a regular Talmud class. The two emerging communities are bringing Judaism back to life in Hungary. "One generation of Judaism is missing in Hungary, because the grandparents of today's children were mostly observant Jews. However, the parents of these children kept Judaism a 'secret' from their children" during the Holocaust and under Communism," a member of the local Jewish community said. Thanks to the efforts of Flax, the Hungarian Jewish Community and donors such as the Wolfson Trust, the Horn Foundation and the Reichmann Foundation, Jewish life in the former ghetto is blossoming.