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Graduates of JDC Program Aim to Invigorate Hungarian Jews

For 20 years, Katalin Talyigas led a secure existence as a respected Hungarian sociologist.

But her life underwent a profound change when she became a “Buncherian.”

Four years ago, Talyigas participated in the Buncher Leadership Program, a three-week course in Israel that since 1989 has fortified Jewish communities around the world.

There, she says, she was inspired by the dynamic, upbeat attitudes and commitment of community leaders.

The message hit home.

When she returned to Budapest, Talyigas left academia.

Now, she is secretary general of the Hungarian Jewish Social Support Foundation and devotes much of her time to the needs of elderly Hungarian Jews.

“As a social worker I can do more than as a sociologist,” said Talyigas, 54.

“I realized the Holocaust survivors need really good services, and I felt it was my obligation to serve them.”

Hoping to find more people like Talyigas, Buncher officials were back in Budapest earlier this month for two days of seminars and recruitment.

Local interest in the program continues to grow, as Europe’s third largest Jewish population — estimates range from 80,000 to 130,000 — is beset by indifference and fragmentation.

Twenty Hungarians have graduated from the Buncher program in the past four years.

But through the recruiting efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sponsors the Buncher program, another 17 candidates plan to travel to Israel in June for a training session that will be conducted in Hungarian.

“I wanted to speed this up because I don’t want to wait 20 or 30 years to have enough Jewish leaders in Hungary,” said Israel Sela, director of JDC Hungary.

“How many years will they be able to rely on external sources for support? The goal is to enable the community to become self-sufficient.”

For Hungarian Jews, the primary challenge is to revive the thriving community spirit that was destroyed by the Nazis.

Prior to World War II, Hungary was home to about 800,000 Jews, who enjoyed an integral role in science, culture and the economy.

About 600,000 Hungarian Jews died during the Holocaust.

Soon after the war, communism and its four decades of anti-religious doctrine prompted many Jews to retreat further from their religious beliefs.

Now, little more than seven years after the fall of communism, one of the community’s top challenges is to bring tens of thousands back into the fold.

By some estimates, there are only 10,000 “active” Jews here — or about one- tenth of the total community.

Organizers hope to bolster the community through youth programs.

But untold thousands of Hungarian Jews continue to hide their identity, or are unaware of their Jewish roots because their parents concealed it from them.

A second task facing organizers is to unite the community.

There are several Jewish associations that sometimes have testy relations, and these are split along generational lines.

Another issue confronted by the Buncher program is fund raising.

The old-style approach of going door to door with the hand extended no longer works. Leaders now must sell donors on specific programs and projects, according to the group’s instructors.

Of all the obstacles facing the community, the biggest may be the pessimism of local Jews.

The recent seminars hosted by the Buncher organization were marked by long discussions about the myriad problems facing the community, rather than brainstorming solutions.

“It’s a cop-out to complain you don’t have the financial resources or the know- how to do things,” said Buncher director Susanne Millner-Scher, who facilitated the Budapest session.

“You have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

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