In Budapest, a Revival of Jewish Studies - and Not Just Among Jews

The Central European University, established by Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros, offers a graduate program attracting students from as far afield as the U.S. and Mongolia.

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BUDAPEST – A small but growing English-language Jewish studies program here is attracting students, Jews and non-Jews alike, from around Europe and places as remote as Mongolia.

Although most are drawn to the graduate program at Central European University because of its international focus and emphasis on modern Jewish history, says faculty member Michael Miller, others are clearly attracted by the opportunity to explore their newly discovered Jewish roots in a new environment.

“We get a number of students from other parts of Eastern Europe, like Poland, who’ve suddenly found out they’re Jewish, but don’t feel comfortable outing themselves back in their home country,” said Miller, an American-born and educated professor who has been teaching in the program since 2001. “It’s easier for them to do it here.”

Central European University was established in 1991 after the fall of Communism by the Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros with the declared aim of facilitating the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. The Jewish studies program, which is not a separate department but a specialization within the both the history and nationalism studies department, was created in 1996 and chiefly targets students studying for their master’s degree, although it has a handful studying toward their doctorates as well.

“Jewish studies programs elsewhere in Europe tend to focus on ancient Judaism and on the Jewish history in that particular country,” said Miller. “Here, we take a broader view and have much more focus on modern Jewish history. Because our courses are taught in English, we get students from all over the place. I can have one class, like the one I teach on the emergence of Zionism, in which I have students from Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, the U.S., Turkmenistan and, yes, even Mongolia all in one room.”

The Jewish studies program is headed by Andras Kovacs, an expert on anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Tadas Janusauskas, a 27-year-old Lithuanian Christian who completed his master’s at CEU and is now writing his doctoral thesis on Jewish-Lithuanian relations in the period between the two world wars, said he was drawn to the program because of its multicultural student body. “It gives you a chance to hear diverse points of view,” he noted.

For Timea Varga, a 24-year-old Hungarian who grew up in Belgium and studied for her bachelor’s degree in the UK, it was the possibility of exploring her interest in Hungarian Jewish history in an international environment that convinced her to enroll in the program. “The tuition waiver I received at CEU did not hurt either,” she added.

Varga’s maternal grandmother is Jewish, she’s been to Israel on Taglit-Birthright, and her family doesn’t eat pork “out of tradition as well as respect for our heritage.” But like many students in the program, her story, as she herself admits, gets a bit more complicated. “I am actually Christian, but then again, I place a huge emphasis on my Jewish background in my self-understanding, so I guess the answer is not a straight no or a straight yes.”

Twenty-three-year-old Agnes Kemelman, another master’s degree student, grew up in the Hungarian capital and is actively involved in the Jewish community here, where she serves as a youth group counselor. For her, the program provided an opportunity to take Jewish studies in a different direction. “I find the intertwining of Judaism and ethnicity in Jewish identity a gripping challenge,” she says. “Since previously I studied Jewish studies from the perspective of Judaism, for me the social scientific-historical perspective of the CEU program is very helpful for broadening my understanding.”

Central European University in Budapest.Credit: Courtesy/CEU

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