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HOLIDAY FEATURE Seders in Hungary’s countryside signify hope for a Jewish revival

BUDAPEST, March 7 (JTA) — It was Rosh Hashanah when Adam Balogh first saw her at the university last year. She wore a Star of David around her neck. So Balogh — who as leader of the tiny Szeged branch of the Hungarian Union of Jewish Students makes it his business to unite the local Jews — asked her if she was indeed Jewish. She said she was, but admitted she didn’t know what it meant. So Balogh invited her to come along to synagogue. Her response: “How much does it cost to get in?” An extreme case, perhaps. But one that reveals the sorry state of Jewry in the Hungarian countryside. Before the war, three-quarters of the 800,000-strong Jewish community lived in the provinces; today, just a smattering of the 100,000 or so Hungarian Jews reside outside of Budapest, the capital. So thorough was the Nazi and Hungarian cleansing, so complete the assimilation and repression of Jewishness during the Communist era that followed, that here was a young woman whose own grandfather had been president of the lively Nyiregyhaza Jewish community — and she thought she had to pay to pray. “After the war, so many people forgot they were Jewish,” said Balogh, a 19-year-old law student. “In Szeged,” which borders Yugoslavia in the southeastern corner of the country, “we have to remind them of it, and revive Jewish life.” Thanks to the efforts of Balogh and others, there’s now a glimmer of hope. Since October, that same woman with the Star of David has become one of the most active of Szeged’s two dozen student members. In December, the Jewish students’ network unveiled its fourth affiliate in the provinces — the eight-member Nagykanizsa chapter, which joins chapters in Szeged, Pecs and Debrecen. And a fifth may be on the way, in Szombathely, a small western Hungarian city that borders Austria. The strides made by UJS in the past year will be capped by a huge Passover seder in Budapest, which will also draw many young Jews from the countryside. For those who stay home, community seders will be held in several smaller cities. That there’s now a Jewish pulse in the countryside comes as a great surprise in Budapest, even among the small core of young Jewish activists. “I really thought there weren’t any Jews left out there,” said Janos Ratonyi, 25. “I thought they were killed in the Holocaust, left the country, moved to Budapest or completely gave up being Jewish.” Even someone like Balogh, who lives in eastern Hungary, said he was unaware that there were still Jews in western Hungary. Few have had the inside information of Sandor Korn, 24. His father, Jozsef, is the longtime president of the Budapest Jewish Communities. “I’ve heard it brought up again and again over the years — what to do about the Jews still in the countryside,” said the younger Korn. “What happened there was such a loss for us. So for me, one of my dreams is to once again see a strong, active countryside Jewry.” But much work lies ahead, and there are many hurdles to overcome; first, how to find Jews, when Jewish networking is an alien concept? Before the collapse of communism in 1989, Jews in the provinces had an idea who else was Jewish, but wouldn’t discuss it publicly. As in any small town — but even more so in an oppressive system that fostered paranoia — Jews had to be cautious about who to trust and what information to divulge. Jewishness remained a sensitive issue, and “Zionist” was a frequent accusation against those who seemed too Jewish. So, much was kept secret from Jewish children. Today, they speak of gravitating naturally to other Jews in school. But they have only recently discovered their Jewishness. Three years ago, as activists in Pecs tried to form the first chapter outside Budapest, its leaders needed help. “We went door to door, asking older Jews we knew who still went to synagogue,” said Csaba Kurti, 22, president of the 40-member chapter. “They told us who had grandchildren, and where they were.” Still, even when approached, a large number of young Jews shy away from joining the openly Jewish group. “They say they have their Jewish friends and that’s enough,” said Gyorgy Gador, a Budapest native who helped found the Szeged chapter of the group while studying in town. “They don’t want to get together with other Jews where the only reason for doing it is because they’re Jewish.” However, Gador noted, a very real concern for others is, “While they know they’re Jewish, they don’t want everybody in town to know it.” The Budapest chapter, on the other hand, has the luxury of a vast pool of young Jews to dip into. It boasts a membership list of 1,000. UJS also happens to be the only game in town for Jewish 20-somethings. Though originally geared for students, members range in age from 18 to 30 years old. Aside from holiday celebrations, the group conducts such activities as weekend clean-ups of derelict, overgrown Jewish cemeteries in remote villages, a trip to Auschwitz — where many of Hungary’s Jews perished — and high-brow gatherings of the Maimonides Circle discussion group. All of these activities cost plenty of money, of course, which is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the UJS. For years, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has supported the groups’ chapters. Only recently has the UJS begun to try to diversify its funding sources, appealing to the local Jewish community, Hungarian government and American donors. However, the response the group often receives is to insist on annual dues from its membership. But after growing accustomed to years of Jewish freebies, even affluent young Budapest Jews are unwilling to pay up. “They may have their mobile phones,” said Ratonyi, “but the idea of giving money to UJS is nonsense to them.” Relations between UJS chapters and Jewish community elders are also tense. In exchange for their financial support, they expect the group not only to attract young Jews, but to lead them to a shul’s wooden pews, an expectation that UJS President Peter Repas calls “unrealistic.” “Judaism is still something strange to us,” said Repas, 27. “We can make young Jews interested in it, but we can’t make them go to synagogue. In a few years, maybe our children will go. But for us, not yet. These are just the first steps of a long process.” As for the countryside, it’s unclear whether momentum can be maintained. All these promising signs of life may fade just as quickly. Above all, the future of Jewry there appears to be an economic question. The lion’s share of foreign investment, infrastructure projects and job creation have centered on Budapest, and little of it trickles into the countryside. Young Jews and non-Jews alike steadily arrive in the capital as “internal immigrants.” “Jews will stay out there only if the economy improves and gives them possibilities to live,” Repas said. “So for countryside Jewry, either dying out or staying alive continue to be possibilities.”