SZENTENDRE, Hungary — Local residents gawked from doorways and windows on Sunday as hundreds of Jews careened down the narrow cobbled roads of Szentendre, dancing behind two crimson canopies.
A rolling PA system on a makeshift bicycle cart played a series of horas throughout the sleepy town on the banks of the Danube River, situated about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the capital, Budapest. Many locals smiled and bobbed their heads along with the music. Others looked puzzled — fair enough given the odd spectacle in the town where only 300-400 Jews live among its 25,000 residents.
The celebration honored the opening of a new synagogue and community center in Szentendre by EMIH, a Hungarian Orthodox Jewish group affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect, along with the dedication of a newly written Torah scroll for the congregation. The complex, in the process of completion, will have a prayer sanctuary, classroom and playground facilities for children, a kosher café, and a small art gallery with Judaica and Jewish art.
The hoopla represented only half of the day’s festivities for the EMIH: Directly following the dedication, revelers packed onto buses which proceeded directly to the inauguration of another synagogue, with a brand new Torah scroll of its own, in Budapest’s 13th district.
The Budapest synagogue is housed in what is planned to be the largest Jewish community center in Hungary — a 2,500 square meter (roughly 27,000 square foot) facility that will include a Jewish theater, a large playground, two kosher restaurants, and an informal study center. Its new rabbi, Shmuel Glitzenstein, moved with his wife from Israel 10 years ago. They now live in the 13th district with their seven children.
“Historically, I don’t think there was ever — certainly not since the Holocaust – a day in Budapest where two synagogues opened on the same day, and two Torah scrolls were finished in one day, so I think this really represents this resurrection of Jewish life that we’re so strongly fighting for,” EMIH executive Rabbi Slomo Koves told The Times of Israel.
The resort with a dark past
With its Mediterranean feel, beautiful architecture, and many small art galleries and workshops, Szentendre is an attractive weekend destination for both Hungarians and foreign tourists. But, like many towns like it throughout Europe, its history also holds a darker side.
Szentendre was home to a flourishing Jewish community for 100 years prior to the Holocaust, Koves said, but during the war the community was destroyed and the Jews perished.
The Nazi genocide saw around 560,000 of the country’s 800,000 Jews exterminated, and along with the subsequent communist rule from shortly after World War II until 1989, sent what was one of the most robust Jewish communities in Europe into hibernation.
Established early-on during Hungary’s socialist rule, Mazsihisz contends with EMIH, each claiming to represent Hungarian Jewish life. The Neolog group has long been considered the largest religious community, though a spokesperson declined to put a number on the group’s membership, telling The Times of Israel only that roughly 10% of Hungarian Jewry officially belong to any religious denomination.
According to the World Jewish Congress, there are between 75,000-100,000 Jews currently in Hungary, whereas a new publication by leading Jewish demographer Prof. Sergio Della Pergola counts some 47,400 “core” Jews. Many Hungarian rabbis consider there to be upwards of 100,000 Jews among their flocks.
Thus far bereft of any synagogue of their own, the 300-to-400 Jews living in Szentendre have shown rare initiative in jumpstarting the community’s renaissance.
“The resilience of the local Jewish community is truly unique,” said incoming Rabbi Mendy Myers, who along with his wife Tzivia will lead the budding community.
“For the last approximately 10 years this group founded their own Jewish association, and they gathered every few weeks to have Jewish cultural events, though there was no rabbi and no infrastructure here. I already feel that it’s a very warm community and a very welcoming one, and one that really cares about the future of Judaism, so I’m very honored to be their rabbi,” he said.
Myers’s father, Rabbi Baruch Myers, is the chief rabbi of Slovakia, and leads the community in Bratislava.
Honoring the past, while looking to the future
The day’s celebrations kicked off with a somber ceremony in Budapest on the bank of the Danube, in front of a Holocaust memorial commemorating the thousands of Jews shot on the riverbank by the Arrow Cross in 1944 and 1945. While paying solemn homage to the many Jews martyred on that spot, the event was focused on the rebuilding taking place all these years later.
“This is the closing of a circle of 2,000 years,” said British-born Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, who sits on the Council of the Israeli Chief rabbinate and flew in to speak at the event.
“In year 70 of the Common Era, Jews came here from Rome,” Weiss told The Times of Israel. “Back in Israel they [the Romans] had thought they destroyed Judaism, but they didn’t succeed. Seventy years ago here, they [the Nazis] again thought they destroyed Judaism, and the poor people here by the Danube River thought they were the end. But their spirit flew on, and every letter in these Torah scrolls represent one of their souls – 600,000 souls. Their souls have come to a final resting place.”
Koves said that for Hungarian Jewry, the Danube represents a “very contradictory symbol, because it’s not only a symbol of life like any body of water, but also a symbol of death.”
“When my grandmother and I would pass by the river, she would say, ‘For me the Danube isn’t blue; it’s red.’ And here we are, at the shore of the Danube at the same place where the Jews were shot into the river, and we commemorate the completion of two Torah scrolls, which represent the eternity of Jewish life,” he said.
Koves also noted that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Chabad-Lubavitch presence in Hungary, which began with Rabbi Baruch Oberlander and his wife Batsheva, who started Jewish outreach from their small apartment in the city’s fifth district in 1989. The movement now boasts 17 rabbis, many of them native Hungarians like Koves, and has opened three synagogues this year.
“There’s a Hasidic saying,” said Koves, “That if you light a lamp, people gather around it. This is really exciting and gives us a lot of hope for a brighter future.”
“A guest from America asked me this week, ‘Are there too many synagogues in Budapest?’” said Koves. “I told him in Hungary there are 100,000 Jews — we are still very far from having too many synagogues.”
Koves added, “You can’t say there’s no demand, because there are 100,000 Jews. Many people can’t even phrase what their demand is, but they feel that they need something — you just have to show them, to give them the option.”
According to Koves, 10 or 15 years ago the one existing Chabad synagogue in Budapest attracted around 50 people on Friday nights, and possibly 10 to 12 people on Saturday mornings. Now, he said, there are six Chabad-run synagogues along with another two congregations led by Chabad rabbis, and 600 people attend on weekends, if not more.
“There are many layers to a community, but a close, warm community usually is not much larger than 100 or 150 people at the inner core, because if it gets larger than that, it doesn’t feel as much like a family,” Koves said, explaining how each new synagogue manages to attract newcomers.
The organization’s mailing list numbers around 10,000 people, Koves said, adding that 5,000 to 10,000 have at least some activity with EMIH throughout the year, even if that means attending just one event or coming to synagogue on the High Holy Days. This is more than Chabad had 20 or 30 years ago, he said, “but still leaves a lot of room for growth.”
Koves cited the research of Hungarian social scientist Andras Kovacs, who polled 1,800 Hungarian Jews about their identity 20 years ago in the largest study of its kind. Last year, Kovacs published an updated study of 1,900 Hungarian Jews.
“Twenty years ago, when it came to Jewish practice, 70% of active community members had parents who also belonged to synagogues,” Koves said. “Today, the numbers have reversed. Seventy percent of people attending synagogue have parents who did not belong to any congregation.”
“This means that in the last 20 years it’s changing into a so-called returning community, people who return to their roots,” Koves said, “and that’s a huge success.”