ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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In Hungary, Orthodox Jews fight over a Chabad bailout some see as a ‘Trojan horse’

Some members of the cash-strapped MAOIH Orthodox community view the assistance by a Chabad-affiliated competitor as a takeover, while others say it’s their congregation’s lifeline

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Worshipers hold morning services outside the locked doors of the Kazinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, July 21, 2023. (David Kelsey/JTA)
Worshipers hold morning services outside the locked doors of the Kazinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, July 21, 2023. (David Kelsey/JTA)

Shortly after Gabor Keszler became the leader of Hungary’s oldest Jewish community, he delivered what he describes as the most difficult speech of his life.

Keszler in May told the 40-odd employees of the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community of Hungary, or MAOIH, that he couldn’t pay their salaries because his organization was “broke,” as he put it.

“We had $11,000 in the bank for an organization with monthly expenses many times that sum,” Keszler recalled in an interview with The Times of Israel. “So I had to tell the employees of our organization, which is supposed to be a reliable employer, that they’re not getting paid.”

Being short on funds isn’t unusual for small Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, where Communism prevented the regrowth of what little survived the Holocaust.

To cover the cash shortfall inherited from his predecessor, Keszler turned to the local branch of Chabad, known as the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (or EMIH). They forked over some $85,000, ensuring salaries for MAOIH employees and the payment of overdue bills, and banishing the specter of devastating lawsuits.

But that was only the opening shot in an internal legal fight involving claims of a takeover by Chabad. The fight is dividing locals and refueling the turf wars between old-guard Jewish communities and up-and-coming Chabad rabbis seeking to carve out a niche for congregations of their own.

Gabor Keszler sits at his desk at the Budapest headquarters of the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community of Hungary in August 2023. (Courtesy of Keszler)

The MAOIH members who support the alliance say it’s a lifeline for the preservation of the legacy of MAOIH as the torchbearer of Hungarian Orthodoxy — a once-great stream of Judaism that produced illustrious rabbinical dynasties including Satmar, Sanz-Klausenburg and Munkacz.

Opponents see the funding as proof that Chabad is coopting the modern reincarnation of Hungarian Orthodoxy.

Gabor Keszler shows off renovations at the Kazinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, Aug. 17, 2023. (Courtesy of MAOIH)

“Chabad is carrying out a lucrative takeover of Hungarian Orthodoxy,” one critic, Sinai Turan, told The Times of Israel of the relationship between EMIH, an umbrella group with 25 synagogues and thousands of congregants, and MAOIH, a far smaller group with only a few dozen members and four functional synagogues.

A Chabad takeover of MAOIH could mean access to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding that MAOIH receives from the Hungarian government annually, added Turan, a lecturer on Judaism at the Eötvös Loránd University. The funding, dating back to the 1990s, provides funds to the two groups as well as MAZSIHISZ, a relatively liberal group with an adversarial attitude toward Chabad.

“Only by constant and aggressive expansion can they secure for themselves the state funds and donor money that they need for their ongoing operations,” Turan said of EMIH. “Chabad replaces Hungarian Orthodoxy with Chabad Tourism & PR Hungary Ltd., and replaces local liturgical tradition and customs with their own. As it did almost everywhere in the synagogues that they took hold of in Hungary.”

Renovations initiated in July 2023 at the Kazinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, are dividing the MAOIH community that owns the structure. (Courtesy of MAOIH)

In addition to the funding, “there’s the brand of Hungarian Orthodoxy, which Chabad needs in order to get in on the financial action around Jewish pilgrimages in Hungary,” Turan added. Haredi Jews belonging to Jewish streams suspicious of Chabad “would be reluctant to touch” touristic enterprises connected with Chabad, he argued.

Keszler dismissed Turan’s claims. “There’s no money in MAOIH, simply running it costs more than it gets in funding,” said Keszler, who used to be in the leadership of MAZSIHISZ. As for the brand, “MAOIH is fully autonomous,” Keszler said.

The Holocaust nearly wiped out Hungarian Orthodoxy because it annihilated its countryside communities. The vast majority of survivors came from Budapest, whose Jews tended to be more modern and less devout. Chabad only became a significant force in Hungary after the fall of Communism. Today, about 100,000 Jews remain in Hungary, which had at least 700,000 before the genocide.

Last month, the conflict within MAOIH on cooperating with Chabad attracted considerable attention in local and international media because of a picture that showed congregants praying outside MAOIH’s largest and best-known asset: a complex featuring three synagogues, including the 100-year-old Kazinczy Street Synagogue, an ornate Art Nouveau building in central Budapest.

To many, the picture was evidence that the leadership under Keszler had shut down the synagogues to stifle dissent over Keszler’s election and cooperation with Chabad.

But Keszler says the complex was closed for urgent repairs due to a combination of poor maintenance, a time-sensitive donation and an overdue government grant earmarked for renovations. Keszler was among the congregants who prayed outside the synagogue, which he says will reopen in three months.

Turan, meanwhile, attributes the abrupt closure to the arrival on the scene of Rabbi Aryeh Mordechay Rabinowitz, a rabbinical judge in his sixties from Israel. “People who oppose the takeover brought over this rabbi, so EMIH and the current leadership shut down the synagogues to harass the community, embarrass the rabbi, and disrupt his work,” Turan said.

Memorial candles dot the bronzed shoe memorial to Holocaust victims shot on the bank of the Danube River in Budapest, September 22, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Rabinowitz said that he came after the community asked him to. He is not being paid for his work in Budapest, he stressed, adding that he plans to stay indefinitely. Rabinowitz believes the current leadership is not autonomous and is subservient to Chabad rabbis. He cites how, in lieu of a synagogue, MAOIH congregants have been invited to use a Chabad-affiliated kosher restaurant, Carmel, as their temporary house of worship.

Keszler denies any attempt to block any worshipers from the synagogue. He did not hire Rabinowitz, but welcomes his arrival, he said. MAOIH does not regard Rabinowitz as the organization’s officiating rabbi as he was not appointed by the organization’s general assembly, Keszler said.

One Hungarian rabbi, Gabriel Finali of Hungary’s non-Orthodox Neolog denomination, told The Times of Israel:”Chabad entered Hungarian Orthodoxy in a trojan horse, and are now using the wood to roast what’s left of MAOIH.”

In recent decades, Chabad communities have been reshaping Jewish leadership and life across Europe with their trademark mix of outreach, access to resources and experience lobbying governments.

“Like many other Jewish outfits, we want to have the same growth and engagement as Chabad has achieved in Hungary. But we are retaining our independence, that’s nonnegotiable,” Keszler said.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, head of the EMIH (Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities), speaks during an AFP interview in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi / AFP)

EMIH’s energetic leader, Rabbi Slomo Koves, has referred to EMIH and MAOIH effectively as parts of the same unit. “In terms of membership and services provided by religious communities, the merger has essentially already taken place,” he said in an interview from February with the news site 24.hu.

“The membership of the MAOIH died out or moved abroad decades ago, and a significant number of new members became Orthodox Jews thanks to EMIH’s outreach activities and joined the MAOIH,” Koves said. Turan disputed these claims.

Responding to the takeover allegations, Koves told The Times of Israel: “Our focus is building the local community and not ‘tourism’ as claimed by Turan. Though it is true that out of the 25 Chabad rabbis working in Hungary we have one who leads a center for Israeli tourists. We are proud of his work as well.”

One longtime member of MAOIH said he regards the opposition to working with Chabad and to Keszler’s leadership as irrational. “I see we’re receiving from Chabad a lifeline to keep the lights on. But I don’t see anything we need to offer up in exchange,” Istvan Grosz, said.

In the 2000s, leaders of Orthodox communities across Europe fought what they regarded as attempts to sap their resources and congregants by Chabad rabbis seeking to market their brand of Judaism, which is relatively strict and conservative yet welcoming and pragmatic. These fights subsided in the 2010s, as Chabad rabbis became part of the mainstream in France, Germany, the Netherlands and beyond.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on March 27, 2023. (Denes Erdos/AP)

In Hungary, however, Chabad’s modus operandi is especially controversial because of its closeness with the government of Viktor Orban, a right-wing politician whom liberals accuse of eroding democracy and minority rights as well as distorting the history of the Holocaust. Some Hungarian Jews accuse Orban of stoking antisemitism with his frequent vilifications of George Soros, a Jewish financier of multiple liberal causes. Others laud his support for Israel and championing of conservative values.

In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, activists from the Egyutt (Together) opposition party in Hungary stand in front of billboards of the government’s campaign against George Soros and his support for migration in Budapest. (AP/Pablo Gorondi)

Koves, the head of EMIH, has disputed criticism of Orban. He’s also attacked Orban’s political rivals over their alliance with the far-right Jobbik party. Under Orban, EMIH has received lands and resources that have helped it grow from a scrappy operation headquartered in a residential building into a large outfit with offices, dozens of employees across Hungary, a slaughterhouse and restaurant, among other amenities.

Rabbi Jacob Werchow presents geese slaughtered by his team in Csengele, Hungary on September 29, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz/ JTA)

“EMIH is just determined to dominate Jewish life in Hungary,” Turan said. He contended that EMIH elevated Keszler to the leadership of MAOIH after his predecessor, Robert Deutsch, turned from an ally of Chabad into a critic.

Interviewed by The Times of Israel, Deutsch alleged that Keszler and a few of his allies changed the bylaws of MAOIH illegally to oust him and replace him with Keszler. A Hungarian court dismissed Deutsch’s petition to nullify the election, ruling it was lawful. The ruling is being appealed. Separately, several rabbis have issued rulings disputing the legitimacy of Keszler’s election and calling to suspend recognition of it pending further investigation.

File: Robert Deutsch, the former president of the MAOIH Jewish group, sits at his office in Budapest, Hungary in 2021. (Courtesy of Neokohn.hu)

As to MAOIH’s low cash reserves when Keszler was voted as head, Deutsch said this was because he had just paid severance to former employees he’d let go to streamline expenses. “We had to spend now to stop spending later on,” he said.

A police investigation into the apparent disappearance of about $2.25 million from MAOIH books, which happened under Deutsch’s predecessor, Eduárd Deblinger, is ongoing, both Deutsch and Keszler confirmed.

Rabbi Shmue Oirechman dancing on the shoulders of other Jews at the opening of the Vorosmarty Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, Aug. 27, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Deutsch had also faced criticism over his one-time openness to cooperation with Chabad. Under Deutsch, Chabad renovated a MAOIH synagogue in Budapest that MAOIH couldn’t afford to fix up and run. A Chabad rabbi, Shmuel Oirechman, who is a brother-in-law of Koves, was installed at that synagogue on Vorosmarty Street. “I was naive,” Deutsch told The Times of Israel. “I thought [EMIH] had good intentions but they were just looking to stage a total takeover,” he said.

The general assembly of MAOIH earlier this year elected Oirechman as secretary-general of MAOIH, in what critics see as another sign of a Chabad takeover.

Children examine a Torah scroll as it is carried into the Vorosmarty Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, August 27, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz via JTA)

The dispute marks an unprecedented low point in interdenominational relations between Jews in Hungary. In addition, MAOIH is fighting in court MAZSIHISZ, Hungary’s largest and most liberal Jewish federation, for money that MAOIH says was appropriated illegally.

The liberal group and EMIH have also have also traded acrimonious allegations on political issues and funds over the years.

The fight is also stoking personal animosities — which have often complicated communal relations — and “again tarnished the reputation of a Jewish community whose members regularly fight over money in view of the national media,” as Keszler put it.

The communal infighting that has in recent years characterized Hungarian Jewry “is a far greater threat than any particular Jewish group on the scene, and with it we shame all of our ancestors,” Keszler said. “I say ‘we’ because of this, I am also to blame. My goal is for this to stop, but it’s a dynamic that’s very difficult to break.”

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