Behind the concerning political headlines in Hungary, on a quiet street around the corner from the famous Budapest Opera House and imposing St. Stephen’s Basilica, a Jewish community is booming and rapidly outgrowing its Jewish community center, the only one in Hungary.
This little known fact — and that Hungary boasts the largest concentration of Jews in Central Europe, some 100,000, acknowledging and embracing their Jewish roots in exciting ways — was also news to me until several years ago.
But on a trip with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), my eyes were opened to this most unlikely story of Jewish revival.
Hungary’s once thriving community of 800,000-plus Jews was decimated during World War II. The infamous deportations of more than 400,000 to Auschwitz in 1944, those brutally shot on the banks of the Danube, and those who suffered in the Budapest Ghetto and labor details, left a disturbing legacy. Then, under Communism, religion and ethnic identity were outlawed, leading to further erosion of Jewish identity and, for some, a concerted effort to hide their roots.
At the end of the Communist era, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jews in Hungary, like their neighbors, began to grapple with newfound freedoms. They also questioned what it meant to be Jewish and began to search for paths to Jewish connection. Recognizing this, the JDC, which had been expelled by the Communists in 1953 and reestablished a presence in Hungary in 1980, helped establish gateways for Jewish engagement and aid Jews facing economic need, including Holocaust survivors.
After 1989, following Hungary’s return to democracy, a true revitalization of Jewish life was sparked among Hungary’s Jews and philanthropists, and other global Jewish groups, invested in opportunities for Jewish life. Today, the result is a myriad of synagogues, cultural events and festivals, educational institutions, sport associations, summer camps, and Israel-focused organizations.
One of the most exciting addresses for this renaissance is the JCC I noted earlier, the Balint House.
Established in 1994, the Balint JCC engages some 15,000 Jews in Budapest, serving people of all ages and Jewish practices. Every day, you can find Holocaust survivors singing in Yiddish, children attending birthday parties, young adults schmoozing in the café, and 40-somethings watching Jewish films at the Film Club. There’s a gym, courses, and lectures, youth and senior clubs, a Hebrew school, programs for people with disabilities, and a wide range of partnerships with local Jewish events and festivals.
Underlying the JCC programs are Jewish values and learning, as well as an understanding of the importance of Jewish engagement with others and tikkun olam. This dynamic venue is guided by the needs of the local Jewish community, and reinvention is part of the Balint JCC’s mission. As an open door to the Jewish community and to Jews of all persuasions, the JCC is the place where many Hungarian Jews get their first exposure to Jewish life and culture.
The energy behind the Balint JCC is Zsuzsa Fritz, its director.
A Budapest native who has made the JCC’s success her raison d’etre, Zsusza has her own fascinating Jewish awakening story to tell.
“I still remember exactly where I was when I realized I was Jewish. I was 16, grief-stricken at my father’s funeral, and alternately confused and captivated by unfamiliar prayers in an unfamiliar language. Communism in Hungary was beginning to unravel, and though I was grieving, the Hebrew prayers awakened something inside of me. It wasn’t necessarily about prayer,” Fritz says, “but about the search for identity.”
Intrigued by her heritage, she boldly joined a cohort of young people who spent Friday nights praying, connecting, planning, and dreaming in the corridors of the Budapest University of Jewish Studies rabbinical seminary.
“In Hungary, there are a lot of closed doors. The only way to succeed is to open them.”
For her role in opening those doors, Zsuzsa was recently given the prestigious Raoul Wallenberg Award for her work with Jews and bridging Jewish and other communities. Similarly, the Balint JCC has come to serve as a place of community and mutual strength during times when the landscape outside its walls are marked by political extremes, uncertainty, and expressions of hate towards Jews and others. Indeed, its very existence constitutes a bold statement that Hungarian Jews are a dynamic and integral part of Hungarian life and are here to stay.
With the support of Jews around the world — and I’m proudly working to expand that group — the Hungarian Jewish community’s story of success and achievement must be told. It’s a story that that moves me deeply. It has given much more meaning to my own Jewish story and identity, and allowed me to contribute to a hopeful and vital future unfolding before our eyes.
I invite you to visit Budapest and meet Zsuzsa, and countless others who are engaged in efforts to build new Jewish generations of proud Jews in Hungary. In June, the future will be on display at Judafest, a lively, festive street fair that brings over 10,000 people to publicly celebrate Jewish tradition. The joy of participants finding new meaning in Judaism or learning about their Jewish roots for the first time, is nothing short of inspiring.
May we all be encouraged and inspired to do all we can to ensure that Hungary’s Jewish community thrives for decades to come. Their strength and success should be a priority for our global Jewish community.
Cathi Luski, a New York City–based philanthropist with Hungarian Jewish roots, is a member of JDC’s Ambassadors Council.