Sziget Festival Counts Losses, Chabad Counts Gains

Sziget Festival Counts Losses, Chabad Counts Gains

At the Sziget Festival, a visitor speaks to Rabbi Boruch Oberlander

by Erika Snyder - Budapest, Hungary

August 22, 2007

Organizers of one of Europe’s largest summer events report the weeklong pop music and cultural Sziget Festival which ended last week a major flop. Not so, says Chabad of Hungary.

The rained-out Festival, held on Margaret Island in the Danube, came up short 15,000 visitors, and will be posting losses. But with more than 350,000 who did come to hang with rockers and artists, Chabad isn’t complaining.

An unusual venue for Jews to gather, dance and daven, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, Chabad’s representativee to Hungary since 1989, sees it as a chance to reach thousands.

“We set up a tent there and had separate dancing and a stand we call ‘Ask a Rabbi.’  Rabbi Shlomo Koves and I saw thousands of people every day,” Oberlander says of this Woodstock-like event. Chabad rabbinical students, and graduates of Chabad's women's teaching colleges were there as well.

As Oberlander seeis it, it's an important step in helping the Hungarian community get used to a Jewish presence again. Chabad’s tent with separate dancing and singing makes a lot of noise, enough to sometimes compete with the heavy metal bands playing on the main stage.

Despite the pouring rain, “the line of people waiting to ask us questions was huge.” Oberlander grins. “Some of them waited with their question all year long knowing they’d meet us here!” 

Chabad has worked hard to revive Hungary’s Jewish community, and is brimming with stories of young men and women unaware of their Jewish roots until recently.

Adam Lunger, a young Hungarian architect had never been to a Shabbat service.

One Friday evening a few years ago he walked into Chabad’s shul where Koves and Oberlander are rabbis, in the old Jewish ghetto, now the Jewish quarter.  A stranger invited Lunger to sit with him in the front row, and that night proved a turning point for Adam, who would return to Jewish tradition in both name and practice.

“Chabad has a positive relationship to Judaism,” Lunger explained.  “Hungarian Jews are sad and base much of their relationship to Judaism on the Holocaust and then Communism.  But, Chabad has recreated Judaism here since the war.

“No one else tried. Chabad has created a positive environment for Jews who are scared to be Jews here.  Now we are looking forward now, not just backward.” Lunger spent a year and a half studying with Rabbi Sholom Hurwitz  at the Chabad-run "Pesti Yeshiva" and will soon be studying at a yeshiva in Israel.

During the war, Hungarian collaborators decimated the Jewish communities in the countryside using the still standing Grand Synagogue in the heart of the Jewish quarter as the sorting station for those who would labor and those who would die. 

Close to 400,000 Jews passed through the synagogue on their way out of Hungary.

The Nazis, saving the Ghetto for last, were surprised by the Soviet army two days earlier than expected in 1945, and as the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary sparing the ghetto from extermination, a new set of challenges rose up for the Jewish community here.  Between the end of the war and the end of the Communist regime in 1989, Jewish life ground to a halt. 

Though it was legal to practice religion under the Communist regime, many Jews fled the country as soon as the Communists opened the borders in 1956 and those who stayed – the vast majority – quickly changed their names to more Hungarian sounding ones, put away their challah covers, prayer books, tefillin and moved away from religion. 

“The Communists didn’t close down synagogues or make practicing religion illegal,” said the Rabbi.  “They merely shut down all the Jewish day schools and within a generation the synagogues doors were shut for good by the Jews themselves.  There was no one left to carry on the tradition.”

The greatest challenge that Chabad faces in Budapest is a profound conviction on the part of Jews here that it is important to assimilate.  Older generations of Jews are afraid to openly practice Jewish observances, having lived through both World War II and Communism, resulting in a younger generation that has been raised without Jewish traditions.

Of the 100,000 self-recognized Jews living in Budapest—a relatively huge community for a former communist, war-ravaged European country, Rabbi Oberlander estimates that around 90,000 are unaffiliated or not practicing.

Afraid to Identify As Jews

Rabbi Mendel Nogradi, Budapest’s associate director at the Keren Ohr Chabad Center, explained that Chabad still will be careful not to put any distinguishing marks on letters they mail to members of the community, hand out Shabbat candles or offer to help put on teffilin on the street. This is not because there of anti-Semitism; it is because Jews, particularly older Jews, are still afraid of being identified as such by their neighbors.

But young Jews like Adam Lunger are being encouraged to learn about Jewish life and from there are deciding they want to learn the traditions of their grandparents.  For Chabad, this meant making Judaic literature available to Hungarian Jews.  

When Rabbi Oberlander arrived in Budapest, he began the process of translating into Hungarian, prayer books, Passover Haggadahs, and the Jewish Bible.  Now, Chabad is working to translate Rashi and the Talmud into Hungarian.

Rabbi Oberlander, who is also a professor of Jewish law at Budapest University’s law school, meets and encourages Jewish students there to consider attending Chabad’s three semester long, soon to be accredited by the Hungarian government, Hungarian Open University of Judaic Studies

In a story that repeats itself again and again, but made all the more remarkable given Hungary’s large Jewish population, when the Oberlander’s arrived in Budapest in 1989 and there was no Jewish kindergarten or day school.  Around the time their oldest son was ready for kindergarten, Bathsheva Oberlander opened a small preschool for five children in a little apartment on the Buda side of the Danube River.

Today, the school, part of the Ohr Avner network, has long since moved into a larger building, and is again looking to expand to be able to provide Jewish education that is increasingly in demand. 

At the end of the communist era, Budapest was left with one, poorly functioning mikvah. Today, women enjoy using the spa-like mikvah, with hand painted Italian tiles three jacuzzis, that makes it look more like a resort than the only operating mikvah in Budapest.

“It was my goal that this mivkah be a place that women look forward to using,” said Bathsheva.  "We wanted this to be a place where women would be happy to come to.”

With a second synagogue on the Pest side of the city that serves 700 Israeli med students and Israeli businesspeople and tourists, Chabad is now planning to open a third Rohr-Family sponsored synagogue on the Buda side of the city.

Rabbi Oberlander, a native Hungarian, says. “From the apartment I live in now, you can see the graveyard on the side of the Great Synagogue. 

“My father saw that courtyard piled one story high with bodies on the day the Ghetto was liberated.  He never thought his son would one day come and work here.”

He surely never imagined that the landscape of empty, broken shuls would one day be transformed into vibrant shuls, with standing room only come Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. 

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