by Amy Nachman
Hungary and its capital Budapest is home to Central Europe’s largest Jewish community – third largest in Europe. Hungary and Budapest tell a unique story of Jewish history. Essentially, from 1948 through the fall of Communism in 1989, there was a vacuous state of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – Jewish life was restricted. During this period, Jewish practice was suppressed and links to Israel were limited. Since the early 90’s there has been a surge of Jewish revival throughout Jewish Eastern Europe. The good news is that the outcome of this time lapse is that many young Jews are discovering that they are Jewish for the first time. There is a Jewish revival brewing, in spite of what we hear, that was exciting to witness and be a part of. In some ways, they are more engaged in Jewish life than we are in the U.S.
I was a part of the Omaha’s Women’s journey of Jewish Eastern Europe – a valuable experience. I chose to stay in Budapest an additional few days to understand more about Jewish Budapest, Omaha’s partnership with Budapest, and share my professional background in Human Resources and Organizational Leadership they might find useful.
Jewish Budapest is made up of a rich tapestry of Jewish organizations, synagogues, programs and Jewish schools, designed to accelerate the revival of Jewish life in Budapest. Although there is a rich resurgence of Jewish community developing, the infrastructure is disjointed, lay leadership undeveloped, and a philanthropy mindset virtually non-existent. Due to a history of continuity and isolation to the Western World, they have even created their own brand of Judaism called “Neologism” – an interesting blend of orthodoxy and conservatism. I was told that there are around 100,000 Jews in Budapest (out of around two million in general), but only about 10% of them identify as Jews. After WWII and the fall of communism, many practicing Jews were either killed or dispersed, or left to migrate to other countries to live their Jewish lives more freely. Those who remained were the more assimilated, non-practicing Jews. To protect or forget, many of these children of Holocaust survivors did not want to outwardly show their Judaism, and in many cases hid their Judaism from their children. The third generation, many of whom I worked with on this trip, were told they were Jewish only as teenagers or even later, when their parents thought they could handle knowing and understanding the potential consequences of this new knowledge.
This was a common story not only in Budapest but throughout Eastern Europe. Jews have been afraid to identify, protecting their children by keeping this information from them. This is still happening today. Although many of these young adults will tell you that outward anti-Semitism is minimal, only a very small percentage of Jews choose to circumcise their Jewish children to avoid being outwardly “marked” as a Jew. The current concern or worry is that of a Nationalist government that is xenophobic and unwelcoming of outsiders (i.e. closing the doors to Syrian migrants). Therefore, Anti-Semitism is subtle, but it’s there. The young adults who now know they are Jewish are forging the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. They are proud and excited to know who they are, but have a lot of ‘catch up’ to do!
I was excited to see the energy of their young adult Jewish community and thought that they could inspire our own young adults by sharing their stories. They are closer to the after-effects of the Holocaust which feeds their desire to learn who they are and their history. There is a strong effort to reach out to unidentified Jewish adults in Budapest, send them to Israel via birthright, and give them a dose of the Jewish experience. They return to Budapest excited and eager to learn more about their unknown/ untold Jewish past. In many cases, this energy is inspiring their family members to join in with them as they embark on this journey; others are going at it alone without their parents or siblings to discover who they are. To inspire these young adults there is a wealth of programs funded through various sources such as the Jewish Agency, The Joint Distribution Committee, the government and our own Partnership programs sponsored through our Federation to help teach them Jewish content unbeknownst to them, community development and social action strategies. There are programs to learn as local cohorts, there are Jewish camps they can become counselors for, they can participate in partnership programs such as “building bridges” to cultivate relationships with their Israeli and US counterparts, they can participate in Israeli culture programs (three thousand people showed up for Yom H’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day), and serve as Jewish emissaries to bring in more and more Jews to freely participate in Jewish life once again.
I spent three days visiting with as many Jewish organizations, institutions and synagogues as I could to learn and understand. On my last day, I conducted a workshop for a group of young Jewish professionals on Jewish Leadership, how to improve their presentation and communication skills and content delivery to outside audiences. I also thought it was important to share my own personal Jewish journey that has shaped both my personal and professional life. I shared photos of Jewish Omaha, including our recent Campaign Cabaret photos to give them a flavor of Jewish Omaha. We discovered how much we have to offer one another through quality dialogue and relationship building.
The story of Jewish Eastern Europe reminded me how important it is to not take our freedom to express our Jewish identities for granted. Many in Eastern Europe have only had the opportunity to discover their Judaism in the last 30 plus years, creating their ‘burning platform’ or sense of urgency, to learn and grow as Jews. If you want to revive your own Jewish journey, go back in time and visit Jewish Eastern Europe. We could benefit from creating our own ‘burning platform’ to ensure we don’t become complacent with our own Jewish growth. I plan to stay connected to Eastern Europe to partner, collaborate, and remind myself of the importance of Jewish global connection, and staying informed of the spectrum of Jewish life and its continued development outside of the US and Israel. I am grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to learn, see and give back.