It’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.
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.