July 25, 2010

Personal Impressions of Budapest - Part I

Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In the first of several travelogue entries, he shares his impressions and insights:

Budapest – Day 1
Where do I begin!!

This morning we arrived in Budapest. A lot of what I am feeling is a comparison to what I saw 5 years ago in Bucharest. The ride in from the airport was not nearly as dreary as in Bucharest. Yes, we saw many apartment buildings of Soviet era style, but there wasn't that same feeling of grayness.

Our first stop after lunch (or breakfast as it was 6 am Stamford time) was the Dohany Synagogue. Walking in it felt like a museum, not a house of worship. A fee is charged and there are two kiosks selling t-shirts and challah covers. Our Scholar in residence … made a statement that rang so true with me.  "A big building does not make a community; rather a community fills a building." The Dohany Synagogue is huge, sitting 3,000 easily, including two levels of balconies. While at the Dohany Synagogue we heard a brief cantorial performance by two cantors, one from Dohany and the other from the rabbinic seminary. It really set the mood and made it clear that we were not in a museum, but in a house of worship…

...We then visited the Rumbach synagogue, a remodeling job in progress. During World War II and the Soviet period the synagogues were not in use and were in horrible shape. The symbolism of the work being done to recreate the Rumbach is as a phoenix. A bird that fell in flames and out of the ashes rose a new bird. This too is true of Jewish community of Hungary, now totaling over 100,000.

Our final visit of the day was to the Balint JCC to learn about some of the JDC programs. The director of the JCC told us her story. Her grandparents were married in the Dohany synagogue, but in the years that followed, especially until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, religion, and especially Judaism, was de-emphasized. Hungarian Jews saw themselves as Hungarians and not Jews. Nothing was being passed on to the children. After the death of her grandfather, it hit the director that she was in fact Jewish. Her personal exploration led her to her current position, at the forefront of a revitalization of Jewishness in Hungary. Her story is one of shared leadership, of partnership, not one of the JDC doing all the work. Hungarians want to rebuild their community themselves.

We [were] told of the unseen poverty in this cosmopolitan city. Homeless families have found new homes in community-owned apartments. The JFS (funded by the Jaffe family of Tidewater, VA) saw that there are some 2,000 children in need. To date they are serving 450 families including 800 children. Our campaign dollars to overseas and JDC are making a real difference in people's lives.

Volunteerism is something the Hungarian Jewish community is learning for itself. Under a communist regime, there is no such thing as volunteering, unless it is 'mandatory'. A typical reaction when a Jewish volunteer tells a friend that they are volunteering their time is, "you are being exploited". When a teen was asked how she was chosen to be part of a leadership training program, her response was 'my own free will'. Things we take for granted are things these people do not.

This is a Jewish community on the mend, one that is making great strides because of the work we are doing.

More tomorrow when I get back from our visit to the Szarvas Summer camp.

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