As a person who has criticized Chabad after feeling harassed by them on the streets of Israel, I felt a twinge of guilt as I partook so eagerly last week in the idyllic Shabbat meal which Chabad of Budapest organizes every Friday night for visitors to the city as well as for their weekly regulars.
I would never have imagined how stark the contrast would be between the welcoming and warm environment I would experience in that Friday night meal as opposed to the Anti-Semitic incident I would experience on the street later that night. But more on that in a minute because first I must give Chabad the respect and attention they deserve after partaking in such memorable Shabbat meals.
What can I say except that it was such a relief to be inside their warm, welcoming environment; a place where I didn’t have to worry, even if only for a while, about the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that is rampant in the streets of European cities these days. We decided to travel to Budapest in spite of our apprehensions, as did many other Israelis, mostly because of the proximity, vast history and cheap hotels and flights that Eastern Europe affords Israelis especially when compared to local hotels and venues within Israel proper.
Stepping up off the street into the Chabad building we first had to pass two local security guards who were stationed at the main entrance. The guards thoroughly checked the contents of our bags and then asked us leading questions one of which was obviously rehearsed in Hebrew even though it was connoted incorrectly. Inside the multi-level Chabad building we reached the first landing just in time to find everyone finishing up their evening services.
The official rabbi was away in Israel for a family occasion so his younger brother was there officiating in his place. The rabbi’s assistant, a robust man named Moshe, continued to welcome everyone in and direct them to their seats, making sure that everyone had what they needed and to make sure they were seated comfortably before the meal began. We had met him earlier that afternoon when we visited their office to pay for our Shabbat meals and so we wished him a Shabbat Shalom with already familiar smiles.
The tables in the main hall were connected in a “U” shape around the room to ensure that the guests mingled with each other and that no one sat alone. With the start of the meal, the dynamic and friendly Rabbi, a true Chabad dynamo despite his mere 21 years of age, began to welcome everyone and proceeded with the Friday night Kiddush and Hamotzi.
As we sat eating our first course, we opened up the conversation with the couple sitting across from us, who were surprisingly from Tel Aviv and were living in Budapest in order for her to complete her Masters in Psychology since, and I quote, “It is much easier to get a degree here than in Israel.” Her husband was also working in Budapest for a foreign investment company, staying there by his wife’s side until her schooling was done.
The climax of the meal was when the Rabbi went around the entire room asking everyone their names and where they were from. The room was filled with “refugees” from Israel, looking for some respite, trying to get away from the current situation. There were families from Sderot, Kfar Aza, Ashdod, a group of 21-year-old soldiers from the Israeli Navy who had just been released from their army service and many other families there to vacation together before the summer draws to a close. Being that it was my Hebrew birthday, the rabbi (with the guidance of my sister) took the opportunity to recruit the entire crowd into singing happy birthday to me and to give me a wonderful blessing for the coming year. I in return thanked them for their hospitality.
The evening drew to a close and we decided to join the couple we had been talking to at dinner on their walk into the city center where they were meeting friends for drinks. We walked along laughing and chatting in Hebrew, not really conscious of the need to be inconspicuous especially since we are so used to being able to talk freely when on the streets in Israel.
We felt the glass pieces and the liquid on our legs even before we realized what had happened. A bottle of vodka had been thrown at us and shattered on the sidewalk sending streams of vodka and pieces of glass everywhere.
We looked around us stunned, trying to figure out who had thrown it at us and why and yet as we looked around, the entire crowd seemed to just keep busy walking as if nothing had happened. It was like no one had even noticed. I had a feeling I knew who had thrown it and I wanted to pick up the bottle neck still in one piece run after him and say, “I am sorry sir but I think you dropped this.”
And just when I was beginning to wonder where the act of cowardice had come from, he turned around and our eyes locked for a brief moment before he turned to look forward again and continued on his way.
“Should we report this to the police?” I asked our local Israeli companions in bewilderment.
“No,” he replied. “The police are even more anti-Semitic than the locals here. And they don’t speak English or tolerate foreigners. Are you hurt? If not, then just let it go. There is nothing we can do.”
I was furious and wanted to yell in Hebrew into the crowd “Am Yisrael Chai!” like a lunatic but I was far from the safety of home where I felt comfortable doing anything in the least bit attention getting.
Far from Israel, my home, where surprisingly enough I feel oh so safe even when there are rockets falling on our heads.
We decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel.
The next morning we arrived at Chabad in time for lunch where a boy from the States was celebrating his bar mitzvah. Oh the irony. I sat there, still reeling from the events of the night before, listening to his parents talk about how they had originally planned his bar mitzvah in Israel but were fearful for their safety and had chosen to reroute their trip to Hungary instead where their son put on his tefillin for the first time on the train tracks to Auschwitz instead of at the Kotel as they had originally planned.
As I sat there in shock, I couldn’t help but long for that moment in a couple of days when I would once again return to the safety of Israel and feel that feeling of coming home (Hevenu Shalom Aleichem) to where the future of my family and our nation lies. It may be true that we will never forget the past and what it was to be a stranger in a strange land but let’s not take for granted what we currently have.
And as I eagerly awaited the moment when I would once again feel the warm embrace of knowing I am back home, I couldn’t begin to fathom for even one second what it would be like to live without our homeland, Israel.
I have returned home to Israel slightly shaken, not stirred and oh so much stronger.