Hillel makes history in Hungary

In North America, Jewish programs at universities are a natural and everyday occurrence. Not so in Hungary.

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest (photo credit: LENNART TANGE/FLICKR)
Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest
(photo credit: LENNART TANGE/FLICKR)
Last week, Hillel held Rosh Hashana services on the campus of the prestigious, century-old Corvinus University of Budapest, to the disbelief of Jewish leaders and anti- Semites alike.
In North America, Jewish programs at universities are a natural and everyday occurrence. Not so in Hungary.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, recently named Hungary as Europe’s most anti-Semitic country. Elie Wiesel, several months before his death in July, bitterly complained that Hungarian government officials, including the country’s president and parliament speaker, openly and officially associated themselves with anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist individuals and events.
Anti-Semitism is alive and spreading in Hungary. This is the main reason that the Hillel Rosh Hashana service at Corvinus University was a historic event, a first for the country since the Holocaust.
Hillel International is making history in Hungary. Our Rosh Hashana Eve service enabled students and young adults to experience worship that was specifically created for them. Students led the chanting and readings using a creative machzor that included the traditional prayers, stories and songs. The service was followed by a meal and program, with many students staying well into the next morning.
Students called it “magical” and “spiritually uplifting,” saying it was great to meet other young Jews. Most had never experienced anything like this. Many were celebrating Rosh Hashana for the first time.
After the Shoah, many Hungarian Jews invested much energy and effort in becoming Jewishly invisible. Hiding, denying and concealing one’s Jewish origin seemed to be the typical approach. The second generation of Jews, children whose parents survived the Holocaust, inherited the taboos regarding their origin and most were unaware of their Jewish roots. Some discovered their family history as adults, and often from strangers in an antisemitic incident.
The current generation of Hungarian students grew up in post-Soviet society, and they are much more receptive to exploring their Jewish identity. However, most are still involved only in online communities or attend just social gatherings with little to no Jewish content. Hillel programs emphasize knowledge, depth and commitment while looking to create a meaningful community experience that appeals to young adults.
The Hillel Machzor included the following famous story that speaks to the challenge of Hillel International and the world Jewish community in Hungary: During World War II many Jewish children were harbored by a myriad of monasteries throughout Europe.
At the end of the war, the Jewish community sent representatives to the monasteries to reclaim the orphaned children to their heritage.
Many of the children who found refuge did so at a young age, and they had but a few recollections of their birthright.
A rabbi coming to a particular monastery in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France was met with hostility.
“You can be sure, rabbi, if we had Jews here we would surely hand them back to you immediately!” exclaimed the monk in charge.
“However, unfortunately for you, we have no Jewish children here.”
The rabbi was given a list of refugees and was told that they were all Germans.
The rabbi had been told that there were definitely close to 10 Jewish children in that monastery and was not convinced. He asked if he could say a few words to the children as they went to sleep. The monk agreed.
The rabbi returned later that evening with two aides, and as the children were lying in their beds about to go to sleep, they entered the large dorm room.
He walked into the room and in the sing-song that is so familiar to hundreds of thousands of Jewish children across the globe he began to sing “Shema Yisrael Ado...” Unexpectedly – in mid-sentence – he stopped.
Suddenly from six beds in the room the ending to that most powerful verse resounded almost in unison.
“Adonai Echad!” He turned to the priest. “These are our children. We will take them now!” The children were redeemed, placed in Jewish homes, and raised as leaders of our community.
Find Jewish children and connect them to our people and heritage. That is our challenge. And in Hungary, we have taken a significant step forward.
Am Yisrael Chai! Rabbi Yossie Goldman is director of global expansion for Hillel International.