Reports of Hungarian Jewish renaissance misleading, says senior rabbi

Robert Frolich, leader of largest Neolog synagogue, laments lack of communal affiliation.

THE DOHÁNY STREET Synagogue (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
BUDAPEST – Media reports of a Jewish “renaissance” in Hungary in recent years are somewhat misleading, a senior Hungarian Jewish leader said.
Interviewed in his Budapest office on Tuesday, Rabbi Robert Frolich of the Dohány Street Synagogue – the largest in Europe and the flagship institution of the Hungarian Neolog Jewish denomination – took issue with the way in which post-Communist Jewish life has been depicted.
For the past two decades, Hungary’s Jewish community has opened synagogues, cultural centers and kosher restaurants. Four Jewish schools educate its children. However, only around a tenth of the country’s 100,000 Jews are associated with the Neolog movement’s Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the country’s largest and most prominent Jewish representative body.
Smaller communities, including a Chabad hassidic group, have even smaller constituencies.
“What do mean [by a] Jewish renaissance?” Frolich asked. “If it means that there are kosher shops and restaurants, and you can see religious Jews walking down the street here in the Jewish quarter, there are Jewish schools and Jewish education. This is a renaissance.”
However, he cautioned, low levels of communal affiliation belie the happy narrative trotted out by everyone from The Christian Science Monitor to Hungary’s Foreign Minister.
When synagogues are not full, then one cannot speak of a renaissance, he said, adding that Jews do not feel that they can “express their Jewishness freely, without any doubt or fear.”
Frolich explained that he believes the low level of connection to the organized Jewish community stems both from fear bred of anti-Semitism and from a “lack of Jewish identity.”
Since Hungary’s 1848 revolution against Austria, he explained, “the Jews were told that ‘you are Hungarians.’” The belief, ingrained through a “century of training,” that they are Hungarians of the Mosaic persuasion, coupled with the after-effects of decades of communist rule, has resulted in a generation “with a very weak Jewish identity,” Frolich said.
“They think that being a Jew is only a matter of religion,” he said.
Looking at Judaism purely as a religion, shorn of its ethnic or national aspects, it appears unattractive to young Hungarians due to the restrictions it places on a modern lifestyle, Frolich said.
They say to themselves, “I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God, why should I join a religious community?” Several thousand of those who most strongly identified as Jewish moved to Israel after the Soviet Union broke up. Frolich believes that this “was a mistake.”
“I think that the Jews who felt their identity as part of the Jewish nation, most of them went to Israel... we miss them,” he said.
It is also important to keep in mind, Frolich added, that it is a “sensitive question” to ask someone if they are Jewish in terms of nationality because of the political ramifications.
With the recent popularity of the anti-Semitic Jobbik party, the third-largest in parliament, there is a renewal of the canard that Hungarian Jews are not true Hungarians, the rabbi explained.
“That’s why it’s very difficult to identify yourself as a Jew here and now. The Nazis of today, they say that the Jews are not Hungarians,” and if the ethnic aspect of Judaism is stressed it would be tantamount to giving Jobbik a “weapon” to use against the Jews, he said.
Beyond that, however, Frolich believes that “when you say you are a Jew as a nationality, it means that you tear yourself apart from the Hungarian nation,” and that this grants a victory to Hitler and his Hungarian collaborators, who told the Jews that they were not Hungarian.
“Because of the generation of the Holocaust, we have to remain part of the Hungarian nation to show that the Nazis were not right,” he asserted.