Around the Jewish World: Purposeful Party Reflects New Face of Hungarian Jewry

In the wooded hills of Budapest’s Buda district above the Danube, Hungarian professionals mingle at a garden party.

To the outsider, nothing distinguishes the relaxed, happy crowd from any other.

But the party has a purpose. In addition to simply enjoying their sunny Sunday afternoon, the partygoers were supporting the $4.5 million campus of the city’s Lauder Javne Jewish Community School, the first new Jewish school to be built in this part of Europe since the Holocaust.

The party took place on the sprawling grounds of the school, which includes a 12,000-book library and a synagogue.

The new campus, financed by the N.Y.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation on a site donated by the Budapest municipality, opened in February.

Guests at the party included the parents and friends of the 600 students – - from kindergartners to high-schoolers — who attend classes here.

In a country where self-help and fund raising were unknown concepts under communism, the guests seemed content to pay for drinks and snacks as their contribution to their children’s school activities and Jewish education.

“These were happy Jews,” said one man who attended the party. “Well off, integrated in society. Not by any means sick, elderly Holocaust survivors.”

The guests, the school, the party and even the fund raising represent an emerging new face of Hungarian Jewry.

What has surfaced is a confident Jewish identification and community involvement that did not exist under communism and that is still very much in the process of evolution half a dozen years after communism’s collapse.

“For most of the past 50 years in Hungary, there was just one, strong, centralized Jewish organization,” Israel Sela, the director of the Hungarian office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said in an interview.

Sela was referring to the official Jewish religious community or “kehillah,” which was virtually the only Jewish organization permitted to operate during the Communist years and most of whose members were elderly.

“Today, there are dozens of Jewish groups of all kinds,” Sela said. “Things are beginning to become normal. What is needed now, though, is outreach in order to involve the unaffiliated, develop new leaders and prepare for the future.”

Numbers alone make Hungary’s Jewish future look brighter than in other former Communist countries.

There are about 3,500 Jews in the Czech Republic and some 5,000 in Bulgaria, for example.

But between 80,000 and 130,000 Jews live in Hungary, making it the third largest Jewish population in Europe and the largest in Eastern and Central Europe, outside the former Soviet Union.

Since the fall of communism, as in other post-Communist states, there has been a mushrooming in Jewish life here.

The Lauder Javne school is one of three Jewish schools in Budapest — the three have a total of about 1,200 students — and there has been a proliferation of non-religious Jewish organizations ranging from Zionist youth groups to a club for gay Jews.

Hundreds of Jewish children attend the JDC-Lauder Foundation Jewish summer camp at Szarvas, in southern Hungary, and Jewish communities have organized themselves in several provincial towns where no formal community existed after World War II.

But the numbers are somewhat misleading, despite this explosive Jewish revival.

The majority of Hungary’s Jews still have no affiliation with any sort of Jewish organization or activity.

Only about 6,000 Jews, most of them elderly, officially belong to the Jewish religious community. Most new Jewish clubs and organizations have only a few dozen or, sometimes, a few hundred members.

And only about 20,000 Jews at most are estimated to have even tenuous contact with any sort of Jewish institution.

Chabad, for instance, which is believed to have the largest Jewish mailing list in Hungary, sends its monthly newsletter to 14,000 people.

Jews active in community work warn that the momentum of revival may be endangered unless new and younger leaders are prepared to get involved.

Most Jews in Hungary today “repudiate the idea of their being designated as Jews,” Gabor Szanto, editor of the Jewish magazine Szombat, recently wrote. The magazine, which is published 10 times a year, has a circulation of 2,000.

“Highly qualified, intellectual Jews keep their distance from the official Jewish community,” he said. “None of the existing organizations has managed to attract in significant numbers members of the 18 to 50 age group in the past seven years of democracy.”

Against this background, organizations such as the JDC and institutions such as the Lauder Javne school have made lay community development and outreach a new priority.

The teaching of religious traditions continues to be important, but many new outreach initiatives are aimed at instilling Jewish awareness and identity – - as well as creating a sense of community involvement and responsibility.

The JDC, which for years has been the mainstay of elderly Holocaust survivors in Hungary with its extensive social welfare programs, has begun putting more emphasis on leadership training and outreach involving younger Jews.

“We are trying to help community members eventually take over the responsibility for their own continuity,” Sela said. “We are only at the beginning. You have to educate and motivate people.”

Sela added, “It is a process. It doesn’t happen in one day.”

JDC-sponsored activities now range from “how to” seminars on fund raising to Jewish teacher and social worker training to organizations such as a Jewish business club, which helps scores of adult professionals network with economists, officials and even foreign commercial attaches.

The Balint Jewish Community Center, which opened in downtown Budapest in 1994 with the support of the JDC, the Doron Foundation, ORT and Britain’s World Jewish Relief, has taken over a key role in reaching out to the non-affiliated community and becoming a focal point of Jewish life outside the synagogue.

“The synagogues are quite empty, but a lot of people who never go to synagogue still hold a Jewish identity inside themselves and want to learn,” said 16- year-old Flora, who comes from an assimilated family but attended Jewish summer camp and is active in a Zionist youth group that has about 100 members.

“I haven’t become religious, but I am interested, and I think that if you are Jewish you should know what it is about,” she said.

The Balint Center, the first full-service JCC to open in Eastern Europe since the Holocaust, hosts a wide variety of programs, classes and events and has a mailing list of more than 5,000.

“The Balint Center is a Jewish house — a Jewish home — that doesn’t identify with any single Jewish organization or movement,” said one staff member. “Everyone is welcome here.”

The aim is to attract religious and unaffiliated Jews alike to a Jewish environment with no strings attached. Balint center events, for example, are listed in mainstream Budapest event guides.

“I have friends who went to the Balint center because there was a concert on,” said 17-year-old Anna. “Then they found out that it was a Jewish center, and they saw the other programs, and started going, first to check them out, then just to go.”

The Lauder school, scene of the summer garden party, aims to create a Jewish community around the school and its Jewish activities, encouraging parents to become involved. Parents are welcome to stay on campus for coffee and conversation after dropping their children off in the morning.

And even though the school does not have a strictly religious orientation, Kabalat Shabbat services are held in the school’s own synagogue each Friday as a further means of creating a communal Jewish spirit among students and their families.

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