Hungary for Jewish Identity

A program called Minyanim is helping young Jews in Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries reconnect with the religion they were cut off from under Nazi and Soviet rule - no aliyah required.

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BUDAPEST – Each person in turn describes his or hers as "the classic Hungarian Jewish story."

Their grandparents lived through the Holocaust, and unlike Jewish survivors in other parts of Eastern Europe, came back home from wherever they had been sent or hidden, determined to set down roots again in the very same place they had left. Their parents were born under Communist rule, so even if they had been interested in finding outlets for their Jewish identity and reconnecting to their past, it wasn't an option.

These 20-and-30-somethings, though, grew up mostly after the fall of Communism, when religion was no longer taboo. They came of age at a time when despite growing anti-Semitism in their country, being Jewish – among a certain breed of young intellectuals at least – has become hip and trendy (just witness the new crop of "Jewish" cafes and pubs in the city's old Jewish quarter). Most importantly, they've all been to Israel on Taglit-Birthright and have returned with an appetite for more – not necessarily more Israel, but definitely more Jewish communal life.

They are all participants or graduates of a new program called Minyanim (the plural form of "minyan," the Hebrew word for the required 10-person quorum for public prayers services) that seeks to build a new cadre of young Jewish leaders in Central and Eastern Europe. Jointly funded and run by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest and the UJA Federation of New York, Minyamin was launched three years ago in Hungary as a pilot program that included 10 participants (hence the Hebrew name). Today, it has a total of 70 participants in Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia.

With an estimated 100,000 Jews, the overwhelming majority in Budapest, Hungary is home to the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe

"We don't see it as our mission to tell young Jews to make aliyah," says 26-year-old Luca Elek, one of the first participants in the program and today one of its directors. "The idea is that if we're already here, we should have a meaningful Jewish life where we are."

Although both her parents are Jewish, Elek, like most of her peers, had no Jewish upbringing and was raised in a home where the one holiday celebrated was Christmas. "When I would walk into a synagogue, I would simply get lost because I didn't understand anything in the prayer book," she explains. "For me, Minyamin was about making Judaism relevant and continuing our connection after Birthright."

The first year in this two-year program is devoted to studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays together, meeting with representatives of the different streams of Judaism and learning about sites of Jewish significance in their respective communities. Three times during the course of the year, participants from all the different countries convene for regional seminars designed to help them build and develop their Jewish networks. In the second year, participant works on individual projects they initiate to either promote Jewish communal life or introduce them to careers in social activism.

Rebuilding a community

The Kishon Cafe, an Israeli restaurant named after the legendary Hungarian-born satirist Efraim Kishon, is one such project. Located in the building that houses the Israeli Cultural Institute on the edge of the old Jewish quarter, it has mural scenes of the Tel Aviv beach, old photographs of the first Hebrew city decorating its walls and music from Israeli radio stations streaming through its sound system.

The Kishon Cafe was the brainchild of 29-year-old Kata Nadas, a Minyanim graduate who today works as a coordinator for Birthright in Central and Eastern Europe. As she explains over a plate of Middle Eastern salads, the cafe was born of the need to find a place where Birthright alumni like her could meet, stay in touch and feel a bit of Israel once they'd returned home.

It's not her only project. When Nadas first became involved in Minyanim, the young Jews of Budapest would occasionally convene on Friday evenings for an alternative-style Kabbalat Shabbat service they called Shabbat Night Fever. With the help of Minyanim funding, Nadas set out to promote the program more widely, and today, it regularly draws 40 to 50 worshippers ("one Shabbat, we even had 80," she boasts).

It's even found a new and unexpected following. "Our parents all saw how much fun we were having, so they said they wanted to have a Kabbalat Shabbat service of their own as well," recounts Nadas, who like many of her peers in Minyanim, refers to her parents as "the lost generation." "So that's how we just started what we call our Shabbat Night Fever Senior Program."

Gabor Mayer, 32, has made the restoration and revival of Budapest's last operating "shtiebel," a small, more intimate-style synagogue, his pet project. The Teleki Square shtiebel, once the house of worship of a dying Hassidic sect, now attracts a large crowd of worshippers of various streams of Judaism – many young adults and children among them – for its weekly Shabbat as well as Jewish holiday services. It has also become a mandatory stop on most tours of Jewish Budapest. "Except for a period of 2-3 months during the war, this shtiebel never closed down," says Mayer. "You stand in that place, and you actually sense history."

The list of Minyanim initiatives includes projects as diverse as "Jewrnalism," a network of young citizen journalists around Europe who report on news affecting their local Jewish communities; the revival of the tiny Polish-Jewish community of Szczecin, and the gathering of recipes from the remnants of the once-thriving Jewish communities of rural Serbia.

Secular Judaism without Israel?

"The future of these Jewish communities is this young leadership," says Alex

Katz, the head of the Jewish Agency delegation in Hungary, who has worked extensively in the former Soviet Union and other parts of Eastern Europe.  

"The Jewish communities here, as opposed to those in Western Europe, have gone through two destructive experiences – not only the Holocaust but also Communism. But they have a tremendous interest now in reconnecting, and we're trying to help them do that through programs like Minyanim."

Anat Barber, an executive at the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, says the project is an expression of the "Jewish renaissance in Europe."

"Its unique asset," she adds, "is that it is run by local European leaders who are crafting the future of their own communities."

Viktor Cseh, the coordinator of the Minyanim group in Budapest, is now running two projects simultaneously – both launched while he was a participant several years ago. One project involves visiting elderly, sick and homebound Jews in the city twice a month and around the times of religious holidays, and a second project involves collecting documentation on the history of the Jews in the Hungarian countryside for a book he's publishing. "Most of my relatives came from the countryside," notes the 23 year old. "Almost all of the Jews from there were murdered during the Holocaust. Only about 3,000 remain today to tell their stories."

Although young Jews from Hungary may not be considering aliyah at the moment, according to Vered Glickman, the director of the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest, the trip to Israel provides them with important insights about modern Jewish life. "What they see in Israel is that you don't have to be religious to be Jewish," she notes.

Half of his group of Minyamin, says Bulgarian-born Mladev Petrov, who lives in

Warsaw today, is considering aliyah. "But we're definitely not in the aliyah business," stresses the 31 year old. In fact, he notes, at their last get-together on Israeli Independence Day, the participants debated how to respond to non-Jewish friends and acquaintances "who say 'I like Jews, but I don't like Israel.'"

In years gone by, says Petrov, the way a person expressed his or her Jewish identity was by going to synagogue. "This program gives us another way to do it, without identifying religiously," he explains. "It's the same sort of safe bubble the synagogue once provided."

Still, he emphasizes, all Minyamin events make a point of being kosher and, as he likes to call it, "Shabbat-friendly."

A Minyanim project.

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