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Bright Lights on the Blue Danube

Binyamin Rose, Budapest

The Hungarian government is officially shedding all remnants of a sometimes intolerant past and making strides to be hospitable to both its Jews and to its former Jewish residents, inviting them to reapply for Hungarian citizenship. But the vast majority of Hungarian Jewry shares a common handicap: They lack a Jewish identity, but don’t even feel they’re missing out. A cadre of dedicated Jewish leaders, some homegrown, some imported, are trying to change that.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Daniel’s story is a remarkable one, in a land where Jews were persecuted by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers and where Judaism was suppressed by Communism for almost half a century.

Yet these days, the Hungarian government is officially shedding all remnants of a sometimes intolerant past and making strides to be hospitable to both its Jews and to its former Jewish residents, inviting them to reapply for Hungarian citizenship.

But the vast majority of Hungarian Jewry shares the same handicap that Daniel began his life with. They lack a Jewish identity, but don’t feel they’re missing out.

The extent of the problem becomes clearer when examining the 2001 census, when only 12,871 people out of Hungary’s approximately 80,000 to 100,000 remaining Jews of matrilineal descent identified themselves as being Jewish. This means that for every Jew who identifies himself/herself as Jewish, there are at least five or six others who do not.

In terms of social status, Hungary’s Jewish community belongs largely to the highly educated and high-status stratum of Hungarian society, according to Professor Andras Kovacs of the Central European University in Budapest. Nearly 46 percent of the Jews hold a university or college degree, compared to just 35 percent among the general population.

“They consider themselves learned, so for them to change their lives, is a long journey,” says Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Weissburger, rav and av beis din Kehilas Kodesh Adas Yeraim Budapest, “but we are seeing the fruits of our labors.”

Born and bar mitzvahed in Hungary, Rabbi Weissburger’s family fled the country’s Communist rule for Israel when he was 13. He eventually became a talmid of the Klausenberger Rebbe in Netanya, where he served as a rosh kollel and neighborhood rav. He returned to Hungary eight years ago, where he gives a local hechsher and supervises Hungary’s legal shechitah. His wife supervises the newly refurbished mikveh.

“My ikar is harbatzas Torah,” says Rabbi Weissburger, whose beis medrash is the address for daf yomi in Budapest, along with a weekly parshah shiur and palatable amounts of mussar. “I say everything sweetly, but I don’t hide anything,” says Rabbi Weissburger. “People have to hear that being a Jew means that you have obligations.”

More than 250 Jewish communities were reestablished in Hungary after WWII for the approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews who survived the war and returned to the country’s truncated borders, but emigration, assimilation, intermarriage, low birth rates, and restrictions under a postwar Communist dictatorship reduced the community to its present size. Jews comprise less than 1 percent of Hungary’s 10 million residents, and 5 percent of Budapest’s 1.7 million residents.

What does tend to swell Hungary’s Jewish population is a bustling Jewish tourist industry. Airfares starting at $229 from Tel Aviv — no more expensive than an overnight stay in many Israeli hotels — lure young, professional Israelis in droves to weekend jaunts to Budapest.

Many might be coming for their version of “fun” but just as many also want to enjoy a traditional Shabbos atmosphere and will avail themselves of any number of community-style Shabbos meals, where one can find an eclectic mix of tourists from Boro Park and London, garrulous young Israelis, and their more laid-back Hungarian counterparts. The languages and cultures may be different, but Shabbos is the unifying factor.


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