Engaging Young Hungarian Jews

When hundreds of young Hungarian Jews gathered last month for the latest Limmud offering around the world, they were partaking in yet another cutting-edge Jewish activity offered in this city.

In some ways, young Hungarian Jews have been spoiled by the increasing number of initiatives aimed at providing positive Jewish experiences. But the third Limmud-Keset festival, as it is known here, offered something of a twist — a combination of learning, volunteerism and grass-roots activism.

The idea that anyone can offer a class on any given subject — the Limmud model used internationally — is a radically new concept in Hungary.”The Jewish community is so used to being bombarded with numerous top-down programs that at first there was surprise, then an outstanding excitement toward a real grass-roots, independent program where people are actually empowered to make a difference,” said Agnes Peresztegi, an attorney and the main organizer of the festival.

This year’s festival, centered on the unusual theme “Blood and Taboos,” offered lectures and workshops about werewolves, laws of family purity, brit milah, anti-Semitic blood libels, self-defense techniques and approaching your inner hero.

For many young Hungarians, Limmud is among the many programs that offer a way into Jewish life. Popular communal Internet sites such as the Jewish Meeting Point or Judapest also are gaining momentum by creating a dialogue and information exchange within the community. The new initiatives are trying to establish their credibility through transparency, freedom and independence from the Hungarian Jewish establishment.

Csaba Kurti, the director of Jewish Meeting Point, founded the Web site along with his brother six years ago because they lived in the countryside and did not have much opportunity to meet Jewish women or make Jewish friends.

Kurti says the site now boasts 2,000 visitors a week and offers forums, matchmaking, cultural reviews and job postings. He says he is most proud of reaching unaffiliated Jews.

“There are still numerous people in Hungary who only find out that they are Jewish in their 20s or 30s, when a grandparent dies and gets buried in a Jewish cemetery,” he said.

Kurti says it can take several years before they feel comfortable enough to participate in a Web chat. Responding to a large demand for Jewish learning, JMPoint has set up an online academy to teach about Judaism.

He believes the situation changes for those in their 20s and 30s when they learn more about their family’s history, much of it rooted in the Holocaust, and realize that being Jewish is about more than partying or lighting some candles.

For the younger set, local branches of international youth organizations play a significant role in shaping Jewish identity. For many, the Limmud was a way to connect with friends from the Szarvas International Youth Camp.

Many youngsters define Limmud-Keset as the grown-up version of their beloved camp, which each summer hosts thousands of students aged 7 to 18 from more than 24 countries. The camp, founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has shaped the Jewish identity of many Hungarian Jews over the past 18 years.

David Klopfer, 21 a college student and leader of Hashomer, is active in Limmud-Keset and the Szarvas camp.

“While most Hungarian youth are becoming more and more anti-social, just sit in front of their Playstation or TV all day long, later do drugs or drink at parties, we are trying to offer more meaningful personal connections, a real community,” he said.

Cultural activities are also proving an important draw among younger Jews.

Siraly, a trendy cultural pub located on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto, sees alternative Jewish culture as a solution to engaging Jews. Siraly unofficially presents itself as a Jewish cultural center with upscale ads, a barely visible mezuzah on its front door and artsy decorations on its walls around the Jewish holidays. It hosts non-Jewish environmental talks and literary readings along with Jewish theater productions and the office of the Conservative movement’s Marom youth organization.

Communal organizers have established a Jewish Youth Forum in order to inspire organizations to map out a plan for bringing Jewish values and experiences to the broader society, and at the same time provide a deeper meaning to Jewish identity. While learning at the Limmud-Keset festival or the Szarvas camp are significant steps in the right direction, some say it’s not enough.

“Hungarian Jewish life has really changed since the political transition,” said Zsuzsa Fritz, the director of the Szarvas camp. “It is not a question any longer for the younger generation whether they are Jewish or not. There are many different, cool ways to experience a positive identity.

“The main issue is the meaning of their Jewishness: Is there any depth to it, is there anything at stake?”

NEXT STORY