Shaiya Rothberg
Shaiya Rothberg

Judaism and human rights from Jerusalem to Budapest

What I saw at Marom Budapest galvanized my faith in the power of Torah to transform the world.

Last Shabbat, I participated in a conference on Human Rights and the Mission of Judaism organized by Marom Olami. The conference was hosted by Marom Budapest at their community center, the Aurora House. I was invited to the conference to teach some (hopefully) inspiring Torah on human rights. But it was I who was deeply inspired by what I saw there. I’d like to share it with you.

First of all, Marom Budapest’s Aurora house is an avant-garde combination of youth culture, prayer, Jewish learning and social activism. Hundreds of activists (and lovers of night life) have made this bar-bakery-synagogue-club-activist’s center (and kitchen for the homeless) into their communal home. One of their flagship projects, the Bankito Festival, draws literally thousands of Jews and non-Jews to a dynamic Jewish festival in Hungary focused on social justice. All that taken together –  a splash of 100 Proof Hungarian Palinka (OK, two splashes), powerful davening, and the noise and energy of all those young idealists – it really just blew me away.

Aurora House
Aurora House


But it didn’t really hit home until we toured the Eighth District of Budapest, the home of the Aurora House, with Marom Budapest’s leadership, including their director, Adam Schonberger. As we moved from street to street, we learned how this once largely Jewish neighborhood was home for a raunchy Jewish theater, became a center of resistance to the Nazis (resulting in a massacre in the courtyard of a building we walked by), and about today’s struggle to care for the largely destitute population who live their now. With real expertise, the kind earned only through deep involvement with the cause, Adam and the other leaders taught us about the plight of the homeless, of the addicted, and of the working poor trying to make their lives in the neighborhood.

And then we reached the train station which was the epicenter of the Hungarian refugee crises last year. We heard how thousands of asylum seekers were stranded for weeks in the very place where we sat, blocked from moving on, nowhere they could return. And we learned how the Jewish community of Marom Budapest invited hundreds of mostly Afghani asylum seekers into their Aurora house. And there they stayed until the crises abated.

Imagine the scene! Families of asylum seekers everywhere — in the courtyard, in the classrooms, on the steps – with the dedicated activists of Marom Budapest stepping over suitcases and around children in their daily routine of feeding the hungry, advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations like LGBTQ and Roma, learning Torah and engaging in Shabbat Prayer. In that scene, I see everything for which Masorti Judaism stands. In my eyes, that message is deeply rooted in Jerusalem, Ir Hakodesh.

At the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, our mission is to help Jews connect to Torah tradition by learning how to learn. We believe that there is great spiritual and moral power in Jewish tradition, and that if we can better access it, we can help transform the world. In the pages of our textual tradition — Bible, Talmud, Zohar and Shulchan Aruch – there is a store of wisdom deeply relevant for the modern world just waiting for us to draw upon it. The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem is a community of seekers delving into the richness of that sacred tradition.

At the Center for Human Rights, one of our projects at the Conservative Yeshiva, those energies are directed towards intensifying the contribution of Judaism to achieving global human rights. The human rights movement, inaugurated in the wake of the Holocaust through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is the first cooperative non-violent attempt of the human species to fulfill the Noachide commandment of Mitsvat Dinim (The Commandment of Laws). This commandment requires the protection of every person in every place through the just rule of law.

TZ bumber sticker

Of particular importance is that human rights law is established upon international covenants and not on conquest. The ultimate source of political and legal authority in Jewish tradition is the free agreement of the public through a shared covenant, as evidenced by the Covenant at Sinai. Human rights are a global movement shared by billions of people – in every country, in every language, of every religion – to protect and nurture humanity. At the Center for Human Rights at the Conservative Yeshiva, we seek to harness the power of Jewish learning, practice and spirituality to help achieve success for this critical attempt of our species to fulfill God’s commandment. Not only justice, but the very survival of humanity, hangs in the balance.

What I saw at Marom Budapest galvanized my faith in the power of Torah to transform the world. Witnessing how the Jewish community of Hungary, decimated by the Holocaust, can not only rise again, but reinvent itself as an agent of change for justice and human solidarity in light of the divine ideal, reaffirms my faith in the great promise of Judaism’s mission for our era.

Hebrew Text from Wikitexts. Translation by Shaiya Rothberg.
About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives with his wife and sons in Jerusalem. He is a teacher of Jewish Thought and a human rights activist. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993 in the military government of the Gaza strip.