Unrest among Hungarian Jews

usztav Zoltay, left, the director of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, and Peter Feldmajer, its president, at the founding of the new Hungarian Jewish Congress. (Szabolcs Panyi)

usztav Zoltay, left, the director of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, and Peter Feldmajer, its president, at the founding of the new Hungarian Jewish Congress. (Szabolcs Panyi)

BUDAPEST (JTA) — Hungarian Jewry’s central organization is trying to broaden its reach, but it’s not doing enough to satisfy some critics.

The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as Mazsihisz, established a new Hungarian Jewish Congress over the weekend. Several Jewish organizations have opted out of the new structure, however, arguing that the federation does not represent the whole community. They are asking for a more pluralistic and democratic representation of the community and criticizing the Hungarian government for funding only the the federation.

Peter Feldmajer, the president of the federation, said the congress was established because of "increasing demands from non-federation organizations to let their voices be heard." While previous efforts to bring in other elements failed, he said, "we believe that this structure will serve the needs of our community in the long run."

The first effort to establish a congress occurred in 1868, a year after the legal emancipation of Hungarian Jewry resulted in a bitter division among the religious communities. The second congress was founded by the communist state leadership in 1950, resulting in the current federation, the only legally accepted representative of the Hungarian Jewish community.

The struggle for a more representative body has intensified since 1989, when the country transitioned back to a democracy. The loudest voices for reform to represent the country’s approximately 100,000 Jews come from independent organizations formed by the younger generation and from branches of international groups, such as Chabad, that are not dependent on the federation for financial support.

At Sunday’s founding meeting of the congress, some 75 organizations came together, including B’nai B’rith, the Hungarian Zionist Organization, Bnei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair and the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association.

When the federation announced the idea of the congress in July, heated debates ensued in the Hungarian Jewish community about whether the congress would bring about real change in Jewish representation. A group of independent organizations, including the local Reform, Masorti, or Conservative, and Chabad organizations, have decided not to participate.

Gabor Radvanszki,the president of Szim Salom, one of the two Reform congregations in Hungary, criticized the new effort, saying the congress does not have the authority to make decisions affecting the community and can only make suggestions to the federation.

Adam Schoenberg, the leader of Marom, a Masorti youth organization, said that "It seems like there are multiple Hungarian Jewish communities in Hungary. One clearly has a lot of money, why should it bother with the needs of younger Jews when they don’t have anything to do with each other?"

While divisions between younger Hungarian Jews and the older, established leadership have been brewing for awhile, the conflicts escalated last December when the federation leadership refused the invitation of Hungary’s president, Laszlo Solyom, to his annual reception for religious leaders. The federation wanted to protest the president’s failure to support legislation that would strengthen the hate speech law, a move the president said was unconstitutional. The Parliament still has not passed the law that would stop extremist hatred.

The Jewish community made headlines when the leadership of Judapest, an independent, online Jewish community that caters to the younger generation, sent a plate of flodni cakes to Solyom accompanied by a letter condemning Mazsihisz for its refusal to attend the meal and stating that the federation does not represent the entire Jewish community.

Several attempts have been made to establish an alternative federation, but none has been successful.

Chabad has been taking its own route for awhile. When it hosted Yonah Metzger, a chief rabbi of Israel, for the inauguration of its new Keren Ohr synagogue in Budapest, Chabad arranged meetings with government officials and leaders of political parties without the federation’s participation.

Slomo Koves, a Chabad rabbi and the leader of the Statusquo Ante congregation, dismissed the federation’s new congress as "a mere PR trick pretending to form an all-encompassing umbrella organization to represent the whole community."

He said that as an organization that dates back to Hungary’s communist days, the federation is trying to "hold on to its feudalist-socialist privileges."

"In order to protect itself from criticism and at the same time avoid real reform and accountability, it came up with the idea of this congress," Koves said.

Koves created a stir in the national media when he said at a news conference Sunday that "the Hungarian government discriminates when it keeps diplomatic connections only with Mazsihisz" and gives the equivalent of $14 million in annual support only to the federation. He argued that the funds should be distributed among Jewish organizations according to their real weight in the community.

The yearly funding is part of restitution the Hungarian government pays to the Jewish community for property seized from Jews during World War II and the communist era.

Part of the communal debate is linked to an internal dispute over who receives the restitution funds from the government.

Feldmajer was quoted in the MTI Hungarian National News Agency that Statusquo Ante, like all other new congregations, is not eligible for the stipend because it did not have properties in Hungary during the war. Chabad claims that since legally the restitution funds are given as "upkeep" for the community, they should be more evenly distributed.

Feldmajer opted not to discuss the legitimacy of the congress.

"We do not want to participate in a debate where people tell lies and non-objective statements about us in order to get a share from the government’s financial support and bathe in the media’s spotlight," he told JTA. "We do not want to contribute to creating an image in mainstream society that Jews are arguing about money again."

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