Around the Jewish World a Rekindled Childhood Friendship Spurs Restoration of Hungarian Shul

The big, new wooden mezuzah on the doorpost of the prayer house in Tokaj is decorated with a silver bunch of grapes. That’s only fitting, since Tokaj, 120 miles northeast of Budapest, is the heart of Hungary’s most famous wine region, and for centuries Jews here were deeply involved in the wine trade.

Tokaj’s Jewish community was all but wiped out in the Holocaust. Today only two or three Jews live in town, and only about a dozen live in the surrounding Zemplen Country.

Thanks to an encounter between two childhood friends, however, Tokaj now has a new spiritual infrastructure, designed to serve visiting Jews and enrich the lives of the few who remain.

The two friends are Lajos Lowy, 56, a shopkeeper who is one of the only Jews in Tokaj, and Tokaj-born Morton Berkovits, who runs a kosher-food business in Brooklyn.

Berkovits recently financed the complete restoration of the Tokaj prayer house, adding a kosher kitchen, dining and study rooms and a library, as well other facilities, to the fully refurbished prayer room.

At the same time, he led Lowy back to an observant Jewish life, encouraging him to keep the Sabbath and keep kosher. He serves as a mentor and even calls almost every day to study Torah with Lowy by telephone.

“There’s a saying, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ and that’s what it’s like,” Berkovits told JTA by phone from Brooklyn.

Says Lowy, “I feel like I’m a new man. It’s as if I am living a dream come true. Berkovits has become my family.”

Lowy and Berkovits were friends as boys, and both studied with Berkovits’ father, who served as the rabbi for the surviving Jewish community after World War II.

But the Berkovits family left for the United States after the Soviets put down the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956, and most other surviving Jews also moved away.

The Lowys remained in Tokaj, where Lowy’s own father, a survivor of Auschwitz, conducted services in the prayer house until his death in 1981.

Lowy dedicated his spare time to preserving the memory of local Jews. A widower, he led a lonely life, with little possibility of practicing Judaism. But he documented Jewish cemeteries in the area, collected photographs and archival material on the destroyed community and tried to help Jewish visitors.

He kept the keys to the little prayer house and cherished the dream that Tokaj’s grandiose main synagogue, built in the 1890s and derelict for decades after the war, one day would be restored.

Jewish visitors to the region included the occasional tourist and people looking for their roots. Most, however, were Orthodox Jews making pilgrimages to the tombs of the revered Chasidic rabbis who are buried in Jewish cemeteries in the area.

“I would always see them, coming with books in their hands,” Lowy recalled. “Sometimes they would sleep in the cemeteries because there was nowhere for them to go and pray.”

Lowy and Berkovits were in sporadic touch over the decades, but they renewed close contact about four years ago when Henry Fuchs — another boyhood friend who now teaches at the University of North Carolina — bought Lowy a ticket to the United States so he could attend the bar mitzvah of Fuchs’ son.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Lowy recalled. “Henry had managed to recover a Torah from Tokaj that had been sent to Israel, and this was used at the bar mitzvah. A Torah that my father had read from — it was very moving just to hold it.”

After the aar mitzvah, Lowy spent a Sabbath with Berkovits in Brooklyn and described to his old friend his dreams and difficulties.

“It was very emotional,” Berkovits recalled.

The two kept in touch by phone and Berkovits eventually helped Lowy reconnect with the religious life he had lived in his youth.

First, he said, he helped Lowy observe the Sabbath. He had him calculate what his dry-goods shop earned on a Saturday, then paid him the equivalent of “a year’s worth of Saturdays” so that he could keep his shop closed that day and not lose his income.

“Sabbath is a magnet,” Berkovits said. “Once you keep Shabbos, other things come after, and Lajos wanted to be religious. He didn’t want to leave Tokaj, though, so I rebuilt the prayer house there in his honor.”

The renovated building — a simple, box-like structure build in 1928 next door to the main synagogue — opened in 2002. Since then, Berkovits said, Tokaj “is becoming a home away from home” for the hundreds of Jews who come to the region to mark the yahrzeits of rabbis buried in nearby towns.

“They know it’s Orthodox and kosher and that they will be welcome,” he said.

Last year, Berkovits, Lowy and other friends formed an association to organize the yahrzeit gatherings, facilitate prayer and monitor and restore Jewish cemeteries in the region.

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the European Union, Tokaj’s main synagogue currently is under full restoration to become a concert hall that also will house a Holocaust Museum and a museum of local Jewish traditions, which will utilize some of the material Lowy collected over the years.

In the week before Rosh Hashanah, Lowy lovingly showed a visitor the prayer house and served kosher cake sent from Brooklyn. He was getting ready to fly to New York to spend the High Holidays with Berkovits, but he made clear that he felt his place — and his role as a Jew — was in Tokaj.

“Tokaj is my city, and there is no way I’ll leave permanently,” Lowy said. “In all of this region, there is no other place where people can pray. There are synagogue buildings, but no other living prayer house. If I leave, the people who come will be alone.”

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