BUDAPEST — In front of hundreds of onlookers and Hungarian President Janos Ader, a ceremony on Thursday evening marked the revival of an ancient synagogue that has lain dormant for hundreds of years.
Built in 1364, the Medieval Jewish Prayer House, a small, two-room Sephardic synagogue in the Buda Castle — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — was taken from the Jews after a devastating pogrom in 1686 when a coalition of Christian armies recaptured the city of Buda from the Ottoman Turks.
The synagogue was turned into residential housing and was forgotten about until the 1960s, when Jewish markings were discovered beneath the paint on the interior ceiling during building renovations by Hungary’s then-Communist government. Since then, the chamber has been open to the public as a sparsely-filled museum, but has not served as a place of religious worship until now.
Clad in a prayer shawl and rocking back and forth with his eyes shut, Rabbi Asher Faith, recited the benedictions cementing him as rabbi of his new congregation on Thursday night. As leaders and members of the Unified Hungarian Congregation (EMIH) — closely affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement — danced and sang in the Medieval Jewish Prayer House’s tightly-packed rooms, spectators crowded into a large tent directly adjacent to the tiny sanctuary, to watch on large television screens.
“Today, when we have this opportunity to reopen a synagogue that has stood abandoned for nearly 350 years, we extend our heartfelt blessings to its new rabbi,” said EMIH executive rabbi Slomo Koves. “Seeing this place 70 years after the Holocaust, seeing hundreds of people celebrating this special event in the Buda Castle with their heads held high, in the presence of the honorable president, I can hear the footsteps of Israel’s final redemption.”
Among the guests was Chief Rabbi of Holland Benjamin Jacobs.
“You can’t destroy the Jewish nation,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel. “We stay. Yes, we suffer from time to time, but when you look here and see a new rabbi, a new-old shul, it’s great.”
There was hope that the opening of the new spiritual center in the capital would infuse some energy into Budapest’s some 100,000 Jews, who are largely unaffiliated and uninterested in Judaism following the Holocaust and decades of Communist rule. High assimilation and intermarriage rates are also characteristic of Hungarian Jews, and skew higher in the younger population.
“Here in the Buda Castle we opened up an old synagogue in extraordinary circumstances, and we’re looking forward to good things,” Faith told The Times of Israel moments after addressing the crowd at the Medieval Jewish Prayer House. “We’ll once again blow the shofar here this Rosh Hashanah, and maybe, in this merit, we will see the Messiah.”
Jewish Buda in antiquity
The Medieval Jewish Prayer House is a testament to the long and colorful history of the Jews in Hungary, which is said to go back for well over 1,000 years.
“Jews were present in the area since the Roman times, and for certain periods, things were quite good for them,” said Gabor Mayer, a local Jewish community member active in the preservation of this and other medieval Jewish sites in Budapest.
“For example, during the [mid-15th century] wedding of King Matthias I, foreigners reported seeing Jews riding in the procession, on horseback, carrying swords at their sides – something unheard of in other places at the time,” said Mayer.
Mayer said there was a nearly continuous Jewish presence in Buda, both when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, as well as after it was conquered by the Christian coalition. The location of the synagogue, as well as other Jewish settlement in the city, was also noteworthy, he said.
“The synagogue was located in a very visible place, right near the city gate, where the king would ride through,” Mayer said. “And Jewish homes were interspersed with non-Jewish homes, as well. Usually, Jewish homes, and certainly the synagogue, were placed either outside the city or hidden away in courtyards. This shows a good level of relations with their neighbors.”
Mayer said that excavations of houses near the Medieval Jewish Prayer House revealed refuse pits that implied residents were observant of kosher laws.
“There were buildings where there were chicken and cow bones, but no pig bones in the garbage,” Mayer said. “But in the buildings next door, there were pig bones in the trash.”
The Medieval Jewish Prayer House also has a display of ancient tombstones, some of which tell unique stories. A long epitaph on one tombstone eulogizes a beloved wife and mother, an unusual sentiment at the time.
“You can see that she was the light of their lives,” said Mayer. “This isn’t typically how you’d think of attitudes towards women in the Middle Ages.”
While the Medieval Jewish Prayer House is certainly significant, and the markings most definitely testify to Jewish life in antiquity, not everyone agrees on its original purpose.
“There’s nothing in the architecture of the building that says this place was used to pray,” said Mayer. “There are no places cut out for the dais or ark. Usually, you could at least see a raised up section for the dais remaining that would show the building was used as a synagogue.”
Scholars believe that the markings – a Jewish star with the priestly blessing, and a bow and arrow with a prayer beseeching God for peace in an era rife with sieges and war – are evidence that the space was possibly converted into a house of prayer after it was initially built.
The Medieval Jewish Prayer House is the smaller of two Jewish houses of worship that existed just meters apart from each other in the Middle Ages. It is thought that the larger of the two, which served the greater Ashkenazi community of Buda at the time, was built in 1461 to suit the community’s growing needs, with the smaller one, the Medieval Jewish Prayer House, then being given to the Sephardic community, which numbered several dozen families, said Mayer.
Government excavations in the 1960s uncovered the larger synagogue around the same time the Medieval Jewish Prayer House was rediscovered. Buried deep underground just across the street, the larger synagogue’s walls measure 6 meters (20 feet) tall, and represent one of the only intact structures of its type in Hungary, said Mayer. When the larger synagogue’s site was dug up, the remains of Jews, who were engaged in prayer at the time of their death in 1686, were found inside, left undisturbed for hundreds of years.
According to “The Buda Chronicles,” a history written by Itzhak ben Zalman Schulhof, the community’s rabbi at the time, the Jews had been loyal to the Turks during the siege of the city. When the approaching league of Christian armies was poised to overrun Buda, the Jews gathered in the synagogue to pray. When the Christians overtook the city, they set fire to the synagogue, which had a wooden roof, with the Jews inside, killing them all.
Schulhof tells of his wife’s death and his subsequent sale into servitude, as part of a harrowing survival story as he documents the destruction of his community in the “Chronicles.” Eventually, Schulhof was bought by agents working for Austria’s Jewish community, who held significant influence as major holders of cash capital, and were actually instrumental in funding the Christian advance.
Mayer said that the Austrian Jewish community did not necessarily aid in the Christian efforts voluntarily, as they too were subject to their non-Jewish rulers. As the battles raged, he said, the Western Jewish community did everything in their power to help protect and prevent the massacre of their Jewish brethren in the east.
An important synagogue awaits a modern revival
Even as the Jewish community celebrates the revival of the Medieval Jewish Prayer House, it laments the neglect of the larger synagogue across the street. After the larger synagogue’s destruction in 1686, it was filled in with earth as the street level was raised and building took place on top of the existing ruins.
When it was rediscovered by the Communist regime in the 1960s, the Jewish community hoped for the larger synagogue to be renovated, said Koves in an interview with The Times of Israel, and these expectations were initially fed into by the government.
After an extended period of inactivity, the Jewish community even reached out to Jews in the United States for donations in the hopes of jump-starting the process. While they managed to secure the funding for the synagogue’s renovation, “the Communists said they didn’t want the American ‘imperialist’ money,” said Mayer.
According to Mayer, who continues to lobby for the synagogue’s restoration, the government simply filled the plot back in and left the piece of Budapest’s Jewish history buried until today.
“They didn’t really give a reason,” he said. “They probably didn’t want to deal with it, and Jewish identity wasn’t exactly encouraged back then.”
In fact, Mayer said, it took until several years ago for Hungary’s post-Communist government, which has been in place since 1989, to even place a historical marker near the area. Mayer, along with many others, continues to fight for the synagogue’s renovation today, as the Hungarian government continues with other renovations in the Buda Castle area.
“They’re even rebuilding the old royal stables,” said Mayer. “They can’t do the synagogue, too?”
Koves said that it took years of negotiating starting in 2014 with multiple entities before a deal was able to be reached in 2016 in which the congregation can worship at the Medieval Jewish Prayer House.
“We wanted to take an old synagogue and restore it to its original purpose. So for a long time we were lobbying the Budapest municipality and the Budapest History Museum, and a year ago we signed an agreement that they will rent us the space for prayers,” said Koves. “So it’s going to stay a museum, but we’ll also remake it to be a synagogue after 600 years.”
“I don’t know if something like this has ever been attempted before – definitely not in Hungary – and God willing, what we are doing, is we are taking this place, we are turning it back into a synagogue, we are making all the furnishings in a style reminiscent of what it may have been like 600 years ago, and we’re restarting a community life there by the holidays,” he said.
“My hope is that once we are established there, the next step will be to open and renovate the bigger synagogue across the street,” Koves said.