BUDAPEST, Jan. 26 (JTA) — An experiment is under way in Hungary to change the perception of Jewish community and broaden its definition to enable wider representation of grassroots Jewish interests. Called the Jewish Forum, the initiative links 18 of the country’s often fractious Jewish organizations into a loose coalition that also aims to provide a meeting point for individual Jews and their concerns. Hungary is home to 100,000 or more Jews, but most are secular and only a small fraction take part in Jewish communal life. As in much of Europe, however, the term “Jewish community” tends to refer to established Jewish institutions and their membership, rather than to the entire Jewish population at large. “The Jewish organizations only contact 10 to 15 percent of Hungary’s Jews,” Andras Heisler, a leader of the Forum movement, said in an interview. “We would like to reach more.” Heisler initiated the Jewish Forum project 16 months ago, when he was president of The Alliance of Jewish Communities in Hungary, or MAZSIHISZ, Hungarian Jewry’s official representative body. The alliance controls the $15 million in state funds designated to support Jewish activities. Over the years it has been criticized as undemocratic, unrepresentative, opaque and monopolistic. Many secular Jews reject the alliance’s religious orientation, and last year a small group even launched a movement attempting to win official state recognition of Jews as an ethnic minority rather than a religion. “The biggest part of Hungarian Jews have no connection to MAZSIHISZ, to synagogues, to religion, but somewhere in their mind they feel that they are Jewish,” said Andras Szego, one of the leaders of the movement pushing for recognition as an ethnic minority. “I feel that Jews should be represented by a Jewish self-government, elected by Jews, and not by MAZSIHISZ, which is a religious organization.” As the alliance’s president, Heisler attempted to introduce reforms calling for more outreach to non-members. In September 2004 he organized an informal meeting of representatives of the alliance and other Jewish organizations aimed at airing some of the grievances. “MAZSIHISZ came under sharp criticism from the other organizations, but after that we saw that each organization has the same problems,” he told JTA. “We concluded that we have a very big problem with communication.” Heisler was ousted as the alliance’s president last summer. Since then he has continued to play a key role in developing the Jewish Forum as an attempt to reform the country’s top-down Jewish communal structure. “It creates a forum for hostile groups to work together,” said Mircea Cernov, a deputy director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Hungary, which provides support for the forum movement. “The idea is to start with what we agree on and put aside the issues of disagreement, to sit and talk about issues that are common to all of us.” In November the forum held a national conference that was billed as the first General Assembly of Hungarian Jewry. Modeled on General Assemblies held by the North American and European Jewish communities, the four-day meeting drew hundreds of people to lectures, workshops, roundtables and debates on topics including education, religion, fund-raising, youth and culture. Participants included representatives of the forum’s 18-member organizations and institutions. They ranged from strictly Orthodox to secular Jews; scores of unaffiliated individuals also attended. By far the largest and most powerful Jewish organization in Hungary, the alliance remains a Jewish Forum member and helped fund the General Assembly. Nonetheless, some observers see the Forum as a potential challenge to the alliance’s position — something Heisler rejects. “The Forum is not against MAZSIHISZ, but for a new strategy of Jewish life,” he said. Still, he added, “MAZSIHISZ is afraid of changes, and the conference was a big change. It was the first time that a non-official organization created a movement for the entire country.” Sociologist Andras Kovacs, who has carried out extensive research on Hungary’s Jewish community, said the success of the General Assembly should give the alliance’s leaders pause. “The event mobilized a much wider audience than MAZSIHISZ members,” he told JTA. “It showed that there is a vivid interest for different Jewish subjects that cannot be covered by the official Jewish community. “It turned out that a lot of young Jews are ready to participate, but they want to do so through activities that are not offered by MAZSIHISZ,” Kovacs said. “That’s where the challenge is.” Peter Feldmajer, the alliance’s current president, played down any conflict with the forum and its goals. “We don’t have as many Jewish organizations as some other countries,” he said, “but we do hope that more and more people will have the right to make their opinions known, and according to that, new foundations and organizations will be established.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.