BUDAPEST — Several dozen members of the Hungarian Jewish community shuffled down Budapest’s busy Karoly thoroughfare on Thursday afternoon, accompanied by a trumpet, French horn and trombone blowing marchy Jewish standards.
Their destination, the Rumbach Synagogue, was located just down a quiet side street a few hundred feet from its well-known counterpart, the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street — the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe and second-largest in the world. And though Thursday’s jubilant procession marking the Rumbach’s rededication and celebrating the reception of its inaugural Torah scroll started in the Dohany Synagogue’s garden, event organizers decided they would take the long way around.
The community’s most prominent members took turns carrying the Torah beneath the traditional four-posted wedding canopy, two-stepping around bewildered patrons at streetside tables who put down their doner kebabs and beers to gawk.
Hanging a right onto the trendy Kiraly Street, the group passed a line of painted black storefronts where tattooed twentysomethings sipped coffee under LGBTQ pride flags. One of the grey-haired revelers had managed to find a tambourine and accompanied the horns enthusiastically.
The Rumbach Synagogue — named for the street on which it stands in Budapest’s formerly Jewish-majority 7th district — long predates the cafes and bars that have sprung up around it in recent years.
Completed in 1872, the towering Moorish structure once housed a vibrant congregation. In 1941 it served as a deportation point for 20,000 Jews — refugees who fled southward after the Nazi invasion of Poland, as well as Jews living in Hungary for decades but lacking proper papers. They were all eventually sent to Kamianets-Podilskyi in Ukraine, where they were executed.
The synagogue sat decaying and abandoned in the heart of this city for over six decades. After changing hands numerous times during and after the socialist era, the building was eventually returned to the Jewish community by the Hungarian government in 2006. Since 2014, its renovation has proceeded in fits and starts as the community dealt with logistics and funding. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the reopening by about a year.
Robert Frolich, the chief rabbi of MAZSIHISZ, the Jewish umbrella organization with which the synagogue is now affiliated, told The Times of Israel that at one point over the years, the building’s roof had rotted through completely and birds had taken up residence in the sanctuary.
“I was in the synagogue as a child and I remember how it was dull, grey, and dark,” he said. “The colorful paint of the wall panels was almost completely faded and gone, there were no ornaments, it was almost in ruins. There was a big fear that it would collapse, or that the government of that time — the so-called communist regime — would destroy it.”
Once inside the synagogue, Thursday’s attendees marveled at the ornate, hand-painted red, blue and gold panels adorning the sanctuary walls as two bar mitzvah boys celebrated their coming of age by helping carry the Torah scroll to the restored Ark. Nearly two storeys tall, it still reaches less than halfway to the magnificent domed ceiling. Colossal gold columns support Eastern-style arches illuminated by portal stained glass windows 10 feet in diameter. In the center of the room, a golden circle the size of a manhole cover hides a hydraulic-driven elevating cantor’s dais — the only such apparatus in the world to grace a synagogue sanctuary.
“We tried to mix the old with the new,” synagogue director Henriett Kiss told The Times of Israel.
“The House,” as Kiss calls it (shortened from The House of Coexistence, the name given to it by the Hungarian government in the original treatment) is a sprawling compound behind a decadent patterned brick facade, enveloping either side of the enormous sanctuary. In addition to its religious function, the Rumbach in its new incarnation emerges as a Jewish cultural center welcoming all denominations and faiths.
Good things come to those who wait and wait
The Rumbach’s grand reopening was the result of years of negotiations, patience, and an $11.2 million grant from the Hungarian state. The event was attended by Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Hungarian Minister of Families Katalin Novak, and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who went on to meet with and thank Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following the ceremony.
“Rumbach should be a space open for everyone regardless of if they are Jewish or not, regardless if they have Jewish relatives or friends, if they are foreigners crossing through town, if they are poor people or students,” said MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler in a speech at the event. “This building will not be a synagogue for just one type of community. It will be open for all Jewish communities living in Budapest and visitors that arrive in our city.”
Where the old rabbi and beadle’s quarters were once housed there is now a kosher cafe (an homage to the city’s history of coffee culture) and conference rooms.
The Mozaik Hub, a nonprofit incubator on the building’s fourth floor, provides office space to some 20 Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, including charities, youth groups and the country’s only professional Jewish theater company. A multimedia exhibition space on the third floor shows the history and current life of Hungarian Jewry, and uses the notable Pulitzer family (which included media magnate Joseph Pulitzer) as an example of Jewish integration and contribution to Hungarian society.
The synagogue will also host music, theater and art exhibitions, and is equipped with sound, lighting and projection systems, as well as a staging area with dressing rooms and showers.
The turnstyles being installed in one of the building’s entrances suggested that tourists will be able to take all this in — for a fee. Kiss confirmed that starting in late July or early August, the center will indeed be officially open to visitors and admission will be charged.
Kiss also expressed hope that the cultural center would become an attractive venue for Israeli artists and musicians in the coming years. While the government funding was conditional on the space being used as a non-denominational cultural center during weekdays for the next five years, Kiss also said that the center’s leadership has a personal investment in its religious nature, and voiced hope that Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday would attract a new crowd.
“When I started this project, I knew the history of Rumbach and that it was a unique synagogue because it was planned by [renowned architect] Otto Wagner, and I love his work, so I was interested in it culturally, but less so as a synagogue,” said Kiss. “But when COVID started, my husband found a box of documents, and since he had the extra time due to the lockdown, he started to go through them with our daughter. And we were surprised to find a paper documenting his grandfather’s bar mitzvah — which took place at the Rumbach in 1922.”
“That was the point where we realized that the Rumbach is more than a synagogue, it’s a part of our origins, our family history,” Kiss said. “And I can say that it has become the center of my heart.”
The Rumbach is more than a synagogue, it’s a part of our origins, our family history
MAZSIHISZ chief rabbi Frolich echoed Kiss’ sentiments with cautious optimism.
“It’s impossible to control the future. My hopes are that the reopening of the synagogue will reopen the hearts of the children and grandchildren of the synagogue’s former members, and maybe — I say it quietly, but with a big hope — this will be a reason for them to go back to the synagogue and reform a congregation,” Frolich said.
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