Day Five – Alive and Well (and some final thoughts)



Our final day of the trip took place on Shabbat.  We had time to relax on our own in the morning and in the afternoon, we took a walk along the Danube River to visit the ‘Shoe Memorial’, a memorial dedicated to the 3,500 Budapest Jews who were shot and thrown into the river during the Holocaust.  The memorial is a long stretch of shoe sculptures, very realistic, and also very troubling.  They sit on the edge of the river and its power is clear by the fact that almost every shoe, and scattered across the memorial, you find small memorial candles that have burned in commemoration of this sickening and twisted Nazi strategy to rid the city of Jews.

We lit this candle and said Mourner’s Kaddish for the victims.

A troubling event occurred while we were there.  We joined together in Mourner’s Kaddish and as we sang ‘Am Israel Chai’, a song about the power of our people to survive any hardship, a foreign tourist, wearing a hiking backpack, walked by our group and gave us the ‘heil hitler’ salute.  As soon as he passed our group, he ran off, as we sang the song even louder, but we were all in shock and remained that way for awhile.  Here we were, honoring the victims of the past and at the same time, being reminded that forces that led to Hitler’s reign are still alive and well today.  Sickening and disturbing to say the least.  According to our tour guide, the person was most likely a European tourist, given how he was dressed and the fact that he had a hiking backpack, so he probably wasn’t a local, but it doesn’t really matter whether the antisemitism is home-grown in Hungary or not.  The fact remains that this part of the world (and increasingly in other parts of the world), will continue to fight antisemitism for a long time.  We’ll never really escape it and our moment at the shoe memorial was a bitter reminder of that.

Another Holocaust Memorial in the city, though extremely controversial. The papers in the foreground were put up by the Jewish community to remind visitors that Hungary wasn’t just a victim of Nazi rule – many Hungarians were also perpetrators. The monument shows the Nazi bird attacking the angel Gabriel, representing Hungary, and the Jewish community was adamant that people understood the whole truth.

On the other hand, later in the evening, back at our hotel (which, by the way, was incredible – the Intercontinental Budapest sits on the river and has views of the Danube that are unrivaled), we had a visit from three Budapest Jews who told us that Hungarian Jewry is alive and well.  In fact, it’s thriving, according to them.  They represented a Reform synagogue, a Neolog community (a specifically Hungarian-type of synagogue that blends Modern Orthodox elements in the prayer service experience with liberal and almost secular Jewish practices outside the synagogue walls), and a representative from the Jewish Agency who works with young Hungarian Jews in a many settings.

Here’s what I walked away with from that discussion:

  1. We must stop relegating Central European Jewry to the annals of history, assuming that the Holocaust destroyed any semblance of Jewish life in these countries today. In both Vienna and Budapest, it’s clear that there are Jews who are creating meaningful Jewish experiences for themselves and I working very hard to understanding how Judaism can fit into their lives.  For Hungarian Jews, many are just discovering they are Jewish for the first time, sometimes in very random ways.  Because of Communism, there was no practice of religion in public and many Jews hid their identities from even their own family members.  Only recently have Jews come to learn that they have Jewish roots and they have no idea what to do with that information.  That’s where the vibrant Jewish community (with more than 20 synagogues in Budapest alone!) is stepping in to provides opportunities for Jews to study about their own tradition and meet other Jews.  One of the speakers told us a powerful story about her own experience going to Israel to study.  When she got there, older people in Israel would say to her, “You’re too young to be speaking Hungarian.”  In other words, they’re only understanding of why someone would speak that language is because they survived the Holocaust.  She had others say to her, “How can you speak that language knowing what the Hungarians did to our people?”  Of course, these statements hurt her and she actually decided to return to Hungary and build a vibrant Jewish community at home.  In her words, “I would rather be a Jew in Hungary than a Hungarian in Israel.”  It was harder for her to find her Judaism in Israel than it was for her to find it in Budapest, where her Jewish identity seemed to blend into the fabric of her life much easier than when she was in Israel, struggling against a tide of skepticism and misconceptions about today’s Hungarian Jews.  We need to understand that Judaism is thriving in Hungary and we must support its growth.  And according to these Jewish leaders who spoke with us, the support doesn’t need to come in the form of trying to help them build Jewish institutions in the country or help them financially.  They are happy to be doing what they’re doing in their own way.  They just want us to recognize their existence, their value, and honor their own approach to building Jewish life in this country.
  2. Hungarian and American Jews are actually searching for the same thing. Both of our communities are asking what it means to be Jewish today and what does it mean to be affiliated with a Jewish community.  And in some ways, the Hungarian Jewish leaders are doing some innovative things that we could learn from for our own communities back in the US.  Since most Hungarian Jews were raised completely secular and come from a society in which religious ritual wasn’t allowed in public, their focus is really on community-building and basic education.  The majority of young Hungarian Jews just want to belong to something because it turns out that communism stripped the whole country of opportunities for people to feel a part of something special and unique -0 everyone just had to fit in to the same model.  That’s why today there are so few organizations in the country that support sub-groups, whether that by LGBTQ families, various religious groups, even just interest areas.  The Jewish community is one of the few places where young Hungarians can feel a part of something and many non-Jews are joining in their services and activities for that reason.  The organized Jewish community in America should study the Hungarian Jewish community for elements and strategies that can help us reach out to unaffiliated Jews in our own communities.  Despite the different historical contexts of our two communities, we are both looking for ways to connect people to one another, add meaning to their lives, and foster a love and appreciation for what our tradition has to offer.

Final Thoughts on the Trip

This was a whirlwind five days of travel around Vienna and Budapest, two cities for which I held many assumptions before visiting them.  The doom and gloom perspective of these cities and their Jewish communities is so false and the trip has reminded me of just how important it is to combat sweeping generalizations.  Most importantly, my eyes have been opened to the historical and physical beauty of two incredible cities with rich Jewish roots and thriving communities.  Da’at Travel, our tour guides, did a fabulous job (as they always do) of creating an experience that was educational, experiential, meaningful, and timely.

I’m going home to a country that is facing its own challenges right now.  For a people who have always been refugees and for whose tradition commands us to welcome the stranger, I’m disturbed by our new president’s attempts to squelch an important point of pride for Americans – we have been a refuge and safe haven when other countries have not.  Experiencing Vienna and Budapest has given me an even greater appreciation for the democratic system we have built in America.  As citizens, and as Jews, we cannot allow certain leaders or groups of people take away one of our greatest points of pride in this world.  Learning about the Hungarian government and their leader’s move towards more and more dictatorial strategies of rule, I cannot help but reflect on our own political climate in the US.  And like the Jews of Vienna and Budapest, I am hopeful that we can rely on our values and our history to ensure we build a future that embraces diversity, cultural heritage, and partnership.

I’m grateful to the Temple Isaiah community for allowing me to participate in this trip and I hope I can come back to these cities with members of our community at some point in the future.

There was a hell of a welcome party awaiting me in Los Angeles!  I arrived at the Los Angeles airport at the same time as a massive protest (thousands of people) was taking place against Trump’s executive order banning refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  My family joined me at the protest outside the International Terminal and it was a fitting end to a trip during which I had been exposed to the historical repercussions of fear and hatred of the ‘other’.

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Day Four – Who are the Hungarian Jews?

IMG_6848.PNGIt’s hard to lock-down a clear understanding of who the Hungarian Jews are today and just how many of them exist in the country.  After 600,000 Hungarian Jews were decimated during the Holocaust (by the way, all of that took place in the span of a few months so it was a very fast and brutal destruction) and after surviving decades of communist rule (it wasn’t until 1989 that Hungary became a democratic state), people are still trying to understand the make-up of the current Hungarian Jewish population.  Estimates range from 80,000-100,000 Jews in Hungary (the majority of which live in Budapest) but no one is sure and it’s all a guess.  That’s mostly because Hungarian Jews are not ‘out’ about their Judaism.  And you can’t blame them.  After all they’ve been through, it’s not a surprise that most of them don’t circumcise their children, they don’t belong to synagogues (even though there are 20 active synagogues in Budapest alone – but all of them have very small membership numbers), and they don’t respond well to surveys that ask them to self-identify as Jews.

At the same time, Jews have had a SIGNIFICANT influence on Hungarian society for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Many of the most famous and influential Hungarians are Jews and they helped shaped the political, cultural, and economic fabric of this country.  We visited a very famous and gorgeous synagogue today – the Dohany synagogue.

The massive (and gorgeous) sanctuary
The outside


From a congregant perspective…
Where the rabbi would sometimes give the sermon
A courtyard where Jews are commemorated and buried who were killed (and whose bodies were left in this courtyard) during the Holocaust
The Weeping Willow Memorial at the Dohany Synagogue
People make a donation and then their family member’s name is added to the memorial tree (for Hungarian family members who perished in the Holocaust)
A plaque for a memorial in Budapest

It has 3,00 seats, was built in 1854, and is attached to a Jewish Museum that was established in 1896 during the country’s 1,000 year birthday (a huge celebration that led to the establishment of many famous and central elements of Budapest’s cityscape).  But today, there’s no way you can fill all the seats in that synagogue.  We visited an Orthodox synagogue that used to be packed every Shabbat and now they’re lucky to get a minyan during the months they’re open (the building is so cold in the winter that they don’t use the sanctuary because there is no heating and its made of concrete, which makes it even colder).

We visited the Holocaust Museum of Budapest, established by the Hungarian government, but sits empty most days because the government hasn’t advocated for it’s success.  It’s meant to educate Hungarians about the impact of the atrocities against the Jews and the Roma (that’s the PC term for gypsies, a significant group in the country that faces much persecution) but it’s underutilized and hidden on a side street in the city.  Unlike other countries in the region that were terrorized by the Nazi regime for years, it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Holocaust came to Hungary.  The systematic destruction of the Jewish community was quick and ruthless and caught everyone by surprise.  At the same time, because of this, many more Jews were able to hide and survive.  Of course, that doesn’t take away from the 600,000 who perished, but it is estimated that about 100,000 were able to be hidden by non-Jewish neighbors or hide in abandoned buildings until liberation in January of 1945.  But the persecution was brutal, as we learned during our tour of the museum.  Truly brutal stories that were hard to hear and worse to view in pictures throughout the museum.

And despite the challenges of the Jewish community in this city, we joined together with two small Reform communities tonight for Shabbat services.  Yes, their numbers were small, but as with our work in the US, numbers tend to be a bad method of measuring success.  As we heard from a speaker after our Shabbat dinner tonight, Hungarian Jews are asking some of the same questions we’re asking ourselves in America.  What does it mean to be Jewish in our country today?  What does it mean to affiliate with an organized Jewish community?  What are the benefits and challenges of such affiliation?  Is the organized Jewish community the best, and most effective, way for me to express my Judaism?

This is just a small taste of the conversations we had today but that’s all I can offer right now (it’s getting very late, yet again).  Shabbat shalom, from Budapest.


Day Three – Entering Budapest

Well, I had just written an entire entry for today, but the internet stopped working and I wasn’t able to save my entry, arg!  It’s 1:30am and I recently got back from a pub crawl through Budapest.  Therefore, I’m just going to post some pictures from today because I need to be up in a few hours.  A brief overview – after a three hour drive to Budapest, we did some sightseeing in the city, met with the Director of the Jewish Community Center in town, had a delicious dinner at a local restaurant (featured in the NYTimes as a top spot to visit in 2017), and ended the night with a pub crawl to a few bars in the Jewish quarter (THE place to go for nightlife in this city, interestingly enough).  I hope to write some more details tomorrow if/when I get the chance.  But for now, pictures will have to do…

From the heights of Buda (the hilly side of the Danube river)


A famous statue that students rub for good luck before taking tests.
The church on the hill in Buda
A map of the hilltop area on the Buda side of the river.


Looking out over Budapest


One of the massive indoor markets in the city


Fashion statement


Famous for their goose liver.
Smiley-face pickles
Designer pickles


At the Monument of Hungarian Heroes
Monument of Heroes


The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Budapest
View from my hotel room at night!
One of the bars
Great name for a bar – located in the Jewish Quarter 🙂

Day Two – Reclaiming Jewish Vienna

img_6557Up until this trip, I had a negative association with Austria and it’s relationship with the Jewish people.  I thought about the Von Trapp family from the Sound of Music,  images of Hitler and the Nazis rolling into Vienna and taking over the entire country, and I imagined a dark and gloomy cloud hanging over this city.  But after my experiences yesterday and today, my perspective has shifted significantly.  Our guides from ARZA World Travel made a very important point at our opening dinner last night – a trip to Central Europe; to Vienna or Budapest or Prague, cannot just be about memorializing the Holocaust.  Of course, there is no denying or escaping the Holocaust’s influence on the history and cultural make-up of these cities, but Vienna’s Jewish history is so much deeper and more significant than just it’s Holocaust-related elements.  Today confirmed that for me.

Our day began with a visit from the Israeli ambassador to Vienna, Talya Lador-Fresher.  She spoke to us for an hour about the relationship between Israel and Austria and while she asked that most of the conversation be off-the-record, here are a few take-aways from our meeting.

Israeli Ambassador, Talya Lador-Fresher
  • As of last year, Israel and Austria have had diplomatic relations for 60 years – that’s a long time!  In other words, relations were established quickly after WWII. Israel wanted to create a quick avenue by which survivors could move to Israel and so Israel set up its first mission in Salzberg after the war to facilitate the process quickly and easily.  Vienna was a hub for Jews to get to Israel after WWII.
  • She reiterated that while Israelis tend to see Austria as associated with the Nazis, she has learned just how rich the Jewish connection to this country really is and that Austrians tend to associate Israel with the Arab/Israeli conflict AND high tech ventures.
  • This past year, 600 Austrian teachers spent two weeks at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to learn how to teach the Holocaust.  That’s the second largest group of non-Israelis to engage in such a learning, Germany being the largest group.
  • There are 14 ministers in the Austrian government and Ambassador Lador-Fresher is hopeful that by later this year, she will be able to account for 11 of those ministers having traveled to Israel at some point in the recent past.
  • She is the first female Israeli ambassador to Austria.
  • The right-wing Freedom party in Austria, which has gained much power over the past years, is a complicated party.  It had its start with Nazi-affiliated leaders and yet today, the only Jewish member of the Austrian parliament is from the Freedom party and the leader of the party is looking to normalize relations with Israel and the Jewish community in Austria.  At the same time, there are still many people who affiliate with the party who are antisemitic.  As of now, Israel does not have a relationship with the leadership of the Freedom party.  It’s more complicated, but that’s all I can share.
  • The refugee crisis is affecting Austria, just as it has affected many European nations.  The largest influx of refugees to Austria has been from Afghanistan (not Syria, as is the case with other countries) and a major question is how to define an asylum seeker vs. a refugee.  Austria seems to be against opening its borders to any more refugees and it sometimes takes three years to determine the status of those who have already entered the country.  For those who are not granted refugee or asylum status, they must be returned to their country and that alone can prove very difficult (understandably – who would want to go back to a country from which they fled?!)


After our visit with the Israeli Ambassador, we got on the bus and headed to the Vienna Temple (Stadtempel), the only surviving synagogue from pre-WWII days.  It has been an active synagogue for over 200 years and in addition to its gorgeous design, holds a lot of Jewish history and remains an active Jewish community to this day.  We met Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, who serves as the rabbi of many communities in Austria, and heard a lot about the community from one of its members who told us the following:

  • Of the 8,000 Jews in Austria, about 7,500 live in Vienna and the other 500 are spread out in small communities throughout the country.
  • The synagogue we visited was tucked away on a side street and had to be built deep wtihin a building because at the time it was established (1826), non-Roman Catholic places of worship weren’t allowed to be recognizable from the street.  In other words, they had to be hidden away from plain sight.  This gorgeous space has been used ever since (except during wartime) and a mixed community of Jews still prays there every week.
  • The 1920s were the height of Jewish life in Vienna, with approximately 200,000 Jews living in the city.  When the Nazis came to town in March of 1938, there were 180,000 Jews and actually, many got out and survived before times got really bad.
  • The Shema melody that most synagogues use today was established in this synagogue in Vienna.  In 1826, a famous cantor, Salomon Sulzer, joined the community and he composed many famous Jewish tunes that are still used in prayers today.  Sulzer also partnered with non-Jewish composers to create pieces of music and Schubert, a famous classical composer, wrote a few pieces of Jewish music for Sulzer.  It goes to show that there was a vibrant relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish musicians.
    The Stadtempel sanctuary
    The ceiling
    The ark
    A memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. It includes every single name.
    Plaque for the famous Jewish composer who had his career here in Vienna

    Cigarette holders next to the urinals. I couldn’t help but take a picture 🙂

As we walked through the city center towards the Jewish Museum, we stopped briefly at a memorial in honor of those who perished in the city from the Black Plague.  The Black Plague led to two famous words/phrases still used today:


  1. When someone sneezes, we say “Bless you” or in German “Health”.  That’s because during the plague, whenever someone sneezed, they were immediately assumed to have the plague and people prayed for their health and recovery.
  2. When people were thought to have been infected, they were locked away in a house or room for 40 days.  The word for forty in Italian is ‘quaranta’.  The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the word for ‘forty’ and stems from the 40 days people were sequestered when assumed to have been infected with the plague.  And 40 is a significant number in Judaism – 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, 40 years of wandering in the desert, 40 days of the flood, etc.  In other words, there were religious reasons why people were quarantined for 40 days and it all stems from Jewish roots.

Our next stop was the Jewish Museum, which happens to be the first Jewish museum in the world, established in the 1890s.  The main purpose of the museum is to teach non-Jewish Austrians about the history of the Jewish people in this country and I have to say, they do an excellent job.  The Executive Director was a famous news broadcaster in Austria and then some years ago, she decided to dedicate her time to upgrading the museum and really helping tell the rich story of the Jewish people in Austria.  There are many famous Jews who spent time in Austria and specifically, in Vienna.  To name a few:

  • Sigmund Freud
  • Theodore Herzl
  • Victor Frankl
  • Gustav Mahler
  • Franz Kafka
  • Simon Wiesenthal
Theodor Herzl’s bicycle from his time in Vienna
Info about the father of Zionism


Model of the sanctuary we saw earlier in the morning – shows how hidden it was in the building.
One of the antisemitic walking stick handles from long ago.
In the children’s learning classroom in the museum
Part of the large collection of Judaica stored at the museum
A collection of antisemitic art displayed there, but in a way that symbolically represents our disfgust with it. It faces backward and you have to look in the mirror at the back of the display to see the front of each piece.

After lunch in the outdoor market in the center of the city (full of great restaurants of all varieties), we met with the Charge d’Affaires of the American Embassy, Eugene Young.  He leads the U.S. Embassy in Austria, promoting a close and productive U.S.-Austrian partnership and furthering the friendship between the Austrian and American people.  We learned a few things from him:


  • There are 300 US companies operating in Austria.
  • Austria is facing its highest unemployment rate in many years though the economy is still in stable condition
  • There’s been a slight rise in antisemitic actions in Austria, though it’s not clear if that’s the result of a larger Muslim refugee population or a general fear of anyone/any group that is considered an outsider. There were 465 antisemitic incidents in 2016 in Austria, whether that be internet postings, graffiti, etc.
  • Young loves Vienna and believes the US is well off by maintaining strong ties with Austria.  He feels like they do a lot of incredible things both educationally and economically for their people and he thinks it is one of those countries that is overlooked by US citizens.
  • Based on the recent election in our country, there is deep skepticism among Austrians about the US government and American citizens.  It is too early to tell what relations will be like in the future, as Young said they are still waiting to hear from the new administration about the government’s strategy on dealing with international relations.  He isn’t the only one waiting to hear…

img_6551Our full day ended with a visit to the only liberal/Reform community in Vienna.  It is called Or Chadash, has been around for 25 years, and is located in the 2nd District, a traditionally Jewish area of Vienna.  We met with their new rabbi, who was just ordained from seminary in London this past year, along with two board members of the community – an Israeli and an Austrian.  I learned that as united as the Jewish community is in Vienna, it’s still a divided community in many respects, similar to any other Jewish community you would visit.  Let’s be honest, all Jewish communities have fractures and divisions – it’s built into our nature.  This small community draws Jews from around Austria, not just Vienna, and regardless of how many (or how few) show up, they have Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday morning.  They have a respectful, yet up-and-down relationship with the established Jewish community (who’s synagogue we visited earlier in the day) and they are working hard to bring more people into their community, as the majority of Jews in Vienna (and in Austria for that matter) are mostly secular who would find comfort and familiarity in the services offered at Or Chadash (each service is in English, Hebrew, and German).

It was a massively full day but I walked away having a much deeper respect for the longevity, creativity, resiliency, and strength of the Jews of Vienna and Austria.  We do ourselves and the Jews of Austria a disservice when we focus on the Holocaust and the loss of 65,000 Jews from this country.  Yes, it was a terrible loss, but there has been such vibrancy in this country for so long and the Jews continue to prosper in this land.  There is a Jewish story here that must be told and shared.

Day One – Palaces, Plaques, and Paintings

When we started driving through the city center, our guide, Siggy, a native of Vienna, gave us a few facts.

  • There are approximately 1.8 million people living in Vienna.
  • The city is divided into 9 districts.  The city center, the oldest and most prominent part of the city, is District 1.  The districts move out in concentric-like circles from the city center.  The easiest way to know what district you’re in is to just look at the number listed on each street sign next to the street name.
  • There are approximately 7,000 Jews living in Vienna today.  That compares to the approximately 80-120,000 living in Budapest, just a few hours down the Danube River.
  • Vienna, like many cities, was established along the river to provide business opportunities and that’s what led Jews to come to Vienna many centuries ago.  As the city expanded, they actually re-directed the main Danube so that it wouldn’t run through the center of town anymore.  There is now a smaller Danube canal near the city center.
  • There were about 200 winter and summer palaces (not just homes, we’re talking hundreds of rooms in these places!) spread out around Vienna.  They were built by the aristocracy over the centuries and many have now been turned into museums but some are still in use.
  • There used to be a wall surrounding the center of the city, but that was removed and while there are still some places where you can see remainders of the wall, a major thoroughfare (Ring Street) serves as the perimeter to the old city center now.

Our first stop was St. Stephensen’s Cathedral.  It’s a massive church that took 400 years to build (beginning in the 13th century) and reminds me of similarly large churches you find throughout Europe.  And because it took so long to build, it has a variety of architectural styles throughout.

From St. Stephensen’s Cathedral, we walked a short distance to the Judenplatz (The Jewish Place), a small square in the old city that contains a memorial to commemorate the murder of 65,000 Viennese Jews during the Holocaust.  British artist, Rachel Whitread, created a reinforced concrete cube that represents an introverted, non-accessible library, with hundreds of books facing backwards (their spines, where titles are written, cannot be seen).  The books represent the untold stories of the thousands of Jews who perished and it was built on the site of the largest synagogue in Europe during the Middle Ages.  In 1421, the Jews of Vienna were expelled or murdered but in the year 2000, they discovered the remains of the synagogue and we were able to go see them.  They are accessed through a Jewish museum located next to the Holocaust memorial.  The remains of the synagogue are actually right below the memorial.  As one of our tour leaders, Nimrod, pointed out, it’s an important symbol of how the new protects the old.  The Holocaust memorial stands above, protecting the ancient remains of a community that refused to be destroyed, despite all efforts to eradicate it.  Jewish vitality is one of our greatest qualities and something for which I am greatly proud.  Here are a few pictures of the memorial and the archeological remains of the synagogue.

Judenplatz (Jewish place), the name of the square…and a restaurant with my daughter’s name.
The Holocaust Memorial
A scaled model of the old city of Vienna and the white area representing the old Jewish neighborhood.
Remains of the old synagogue.
Description of the synagogue.

From Judenplatz, we boarded the bus and traveled to the Belvedere Palace, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s summer residence and designed by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, one of Central Europe’s greatest Baroque architects.  Building began in 1712 and was finished in 1723.  It’s an awesome place and consists of gorgeous gardens and two significant palaces.  Lower Belvedere was where the prince slept and Upper Belvedere was where he held all his ridiculously lavish parties.  Upper Belvedere is now home to the largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, including his very famous The Kiss.  Other incredible art adorns the gorgeous and detailed ballrooms of this palace, including paintings made famous by the movie, The Woman in Gold and it was wonderful to spend time meandering through the many rooms.  Photography was off-limits in most areas, but here are a few pics…

Upper Belvedere Palace
The Grand Ballroom
Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Messerschmidt studied facial expressions and then made some amazing sculptures based on his research
Upper Belvedere Palace

Our day finally ended with a group dinner at the hotel, giving us a chance to get to know each other a little better.  I’m looking forward to getting some sleep since I haven’t slept more than 3 hours in the last 36 hours.  A few final pics from the hotel –

Gute Nacht – Good Night


Arrival and Pre-Tour

Sunrise over Central Europe

After establishing an entirely new itinerary when I arrived at the airport yesterday morning and traveling for about 15, via Dulles airport, I looked out my window to witness the sun rise over central Europe.  With a thick layer of clouds covering the entire skyline as though it were a vast sea of snow, we descended through the clouds to arrive into the the overcast and freezing Vienna airport.  After a brief 20 minute ride into the city center, I arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel, situated across the street from a beautiful park (one of many in Vienna) and just outside the main center of this beautiful city.  I’ve never been to Central Europe and after my first day here, I’m so excited to dig into the stories, history, and culture of this region.

Yes, it felt like 10 degrees all day

Since I arrived in the morning, I had some time to walk around town before the tour officially started.  When I posted on online that I was coming to Vienna, a few people highly recommended a dessert at a certain hotel in town.  It turns out the hotel, Hotel Sacher is right behind the grandiose Opera building (pics below).

The Hotel Sacher is famous not only for it’s Sacher-Torte, but also for it’s clientele – all the royalty of Austria and many celebrities and royalty from Europe have stayed at this quaint, but elegant hotel.  There’s even a table cloth hanging in the hotel that has signatures of many famous guest stitched in.  But I was there for the torte.  Luckily, I didn’t have to wait in line at the Cafe Sacher and the Sacher-Torte went perfectly with my double espresso.

A few hours later, our tour officially began and after some introductions (there are about 20 rabbis, some of whom brought their partners, on this tour), we got on our bus to check out the town.


Vienna & Budapest Itinerary


Here is the most recent version of the itinerary for the trip I’m taking to Vienna and Budapest with ARZA World Travel.

Day One:


• Depart the U.S.A. Overnight: Flight

Day Two:


  • Arrive at Vienna International Airport.
  • Transfer on own to the hotel.
  • Check into the hotel. (Official hotel check-in is from 3:00 p.m., if your rooms are not ready upon arrival you can leave your luggage with the concierge.)
  • 2:00 p.m. Meet your guide, Ms. Siggy Massenbauer, and ARZA World staff in the hotel’s Salon Bach for an orientation to the program.
  • Depart for a panoramic tour along the Ringstrasse, the main avenue circling the city center, for a view ofthe city’s main landmarks, including:
    •  The ancient Hofberg Palace. This grand complex of a Capella and castles was once the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    •  Prater Amusement Park. This 120-year-old park contains old and new attractions for all ages.
    •  The impressive architecture of the UN Buildings, which are the 3rd built after New York and Geneva.
    •  St. Peter’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Vienna
    •  View St. Stephen’s Cathedral (also known as Stephansdom), one of the city’s most iconic symbols, located in the city’s geographic center.
  • Visit the collection of Klimt paintings at the Belvedere Palace, an impressive baroque-style building which holds a remarkable collection of Austrian and International art.
  • Return to the hotel.
  • Europe in Transition and Austria’s Position: A Look Towards the Future – Welcome dinner and orientation dialogue with a local journalist. Overnight: Intercontinental, Vienna

Day Three:


  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • 9:00 a.m. Depart the hotel.
  • 9:30 a.m. Visit the Vienna Temple (Stadtempel), the only surviving synagogue from pre-WWII days. This nearly 200-year-old building has restored its extravagant design and is still an active synagogue and community center. Dialogue with Rabbi Hofmeister, the community Rabbi of the Jewish Community in Vienna.
  • Stroll through the Judenplatz, the main square of the Jewish community for nearly 500 years.
  • 10:45 a.m. Visit the Jewish Museum of Vienna to see remnants of the oldest synagogue in Vienna.
  • Stop at the Memorial to Austrian Holocaust Victims. Learn about its unique story of its excavations and the miraculous findings of the ancient synagogue of Vienna.
  • 11:30 a.m. Visit the second part of the Jewish Museum, located in Palais Eskeles, which offers a modern presentation of the history of Viennese Jewry, including artifacts dating from the Middle Ages, a 38,000 book archive, and rotating exhibitions. Welcome and introductory remarks by Dr. Danielle Spera, Director of the Jewish Museum.
  • Enjoy the best of Vienna’s delights, while strolling through the Naschmarket, the city’s most popular food market.
  • Lunch on your own at the Naschmarket.
  • 3:00 p.m. Meet with Mr. Eugene Young, the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires.
  • 5:00 p.m. Building a Community Dialogue with leaders of Or Chadasch, Austria’s only Progressive congregation.
  • Return to the hotel.
  • Dinner on your own and evening at leisure.
  • Overnight: Intercontinental, Vienna

Day Four:


  • Breakfast at the hotel and check out.
  • 8:00 a.m. Depart the hotel.
  • Drive east along the Danube River to Budapest.
  • Meet your guide, Ms. Juli Lengyel.
  • Ascend Castle Hill – where among other historical sites, stands the first royal castle of the city. Enjoy the panoramic views of Budapest from the top of the Fisherman’s Bastion, which commemorates the Fishermen who were guarding the city.
  • Lunch on your own, en route.
  • Take a panoramic bus tour along Andrassy Avenue and visit Heroes’ Square, one of Budapest’s landmarks. Relive the 1,000 years of Hungarian history through the square’s impressive statues of kings and leaders.
  • 4:00 p.m. Visit the Joint Distribution Committee’s Balint House, the JCC of Budapest, and meet with representatives of the local Jewish community representing different social and political agendas.
  • Check into the hotel.
  • Dinner on your own.
  • 9:00 p.m. Experience the fabulous night life that Budapest has to offer though a special pub crawl through the Jewish Quarter with its restored and renovated warehouses, better known as the Ruin Pubs, transformed into fashionable bars and Bistros. Good food, live music and dance club options are spread throughout the neighborhood.
  • Overnight: Intercontinental, Budapest

Day Five:


  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • 8:00 a.m. Dialogue with political analyst Gabor Gyori, a Senior Analyst at the Hungarian think tank Policy Solutions, on socio-economic and political trends across Europe, Hungary’s place within Europe, anti-Semitism and the implications for the Jews of Hungary.
  • Meet your guide, Ms. Agi Antal, and depart the hotel.
  • Explore the story of Jewish Budapest over the past 150 years, including visits to:
    •  The largest synagogue in Europe, the Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in 1859, the synagogue holds 3,000 seats and is home to one of the Neolog communities of Budapest.
    •  The Jewish Museum, which is housed on the site of Theodor Herzl’s family home. This museum holds a unique collection of Jewish artifacts, art and memorabilia, which shed a new light on the rich Jewish life and predominant Jewish community of Hungary, its influence on Hungarian society and its long-lasting memory.
    •  The complex courtyard, where the Community Holocaust Memorial stands. This impressive monument commemorates over 500,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
  • Lunch on your own, en route.
  • 3:00 p.m. Learn about the Holocaust of the Hungarian Jews at the Holocaust Memorial Center. Walk back in time through rare footage, artifacts and documents, in this center, focusing on the life before, during and after the Holocaust of the Hungarian Jews. This modern building organically links into the impressive newly renovated Páva Street Synagogue, which was once the second largest site for Jewish worship in Budapest.
  • Return to the hotel with free time to prepare for Shabbat.
  • Kabbalat Shabbat services at a local synagogue.
  • 7:30 p.m. Hotel inspection at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
  • 8:00 p.m. An inside look into Hungary’s Jewish community and major trends affecting Jewish life:  Shabbat dinner and dialogue with Professor Michael Miller, Associate Professor of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University.
  • Overnight: Intercontinental, Budapest

Day Six:


  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Optional Shabbat services at a local synagogue OR…

• 9:00 a.m. Optional Walking tour to explore Margaret Island, an island in the middle of the Danube River. The island features romantic walkways, medieval ruins, a small zoo, musical fountain, a water tower and more.

• Optional Morning at leisure to explore Budapest on your own with the opportunity to:

  •  Stroll along the fashionable Vaci Utca (Vaci Street), enjoy people watching and feel the vibe withits many local boutiques, shops and cafes.
  •  Visit Budapest’s urban City Park (Varosliget). Walk on the grounds of the Vajdahunyad Castle,the 120-year-old castle showcasing the architectural evolution through centuries and styles in Hungary. Stroll through the City Park Lake, which is great for rowing in summer and ice skating in winter, and spend some entertaining time in the Budapest Circus or the 100-year-old Municipal Zoo.
  •  Visit the Széchenyi Bathhouse or Gellert Bathhouse, known for their healing waters. Inside and on the grounds of these beautiful palace compounds, you can enjoy various styles of indoor and outdoor medicinal and natural pools.
  •  Shop with the locals at the Great Market Hall. This 3-level indoor complex includes vendors of local seasonal produce, spices and handcrafted gifts.
  •  Enjoy a cruise on the Danube River to see Budapest’s major landmarks in a different light.
  • Lunch on your own, en route.
  • 2:00 p.m. Meet Agi in the hotel lobby and take a guided walk through downtown Budapest, including Liberty Square, with its controversial WWII monument, Hungary’s tribute to the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and a view of the Hungarian Parliament building.
  • Stop at the Shoes on the Danube Promenade, a memorial created by Gyula Pauer and Can Togay on the West side of the Danube, honoring the Jews killed by the fascist Arrow Cross militants during World War II; the memorial represents the shoes left behind on the river bank as they fell into the river after being shot.
  • Return to the hotel.
  • 6:00 p.m. Ben Kodesh Lechol: Havdallah program and discussion with young Hungarian Jewish leaders. Can Anti-Semitism and Jewish renewal work together? What’s your vision of Jewish life for the next generation?
  • 8:00 p.m. Hotel inspection at the Zara Continental Hotel.
  • 8:30 p.m. Farewell dinner and group wrap-up conversation at the Zara Continental Hotel.
  • Overnight: Intercontinental, Budapest

Day Seven:


  • Breakfast at the hotel and check out.
  • Transfer on own to Budapest International Airport.
  • Departure flight to the U.S.A., arriving the same day.