BODROGKERESZTUR, Hungary — Nestled in the rolling hills of Hungary’s Tokaj wine region, the tiny village of Bodrogkeresztur was whipped into a festive fervor late last month as tens of thousands of Orthodox Jewish pilgrims flocked in from around the world to visit the gravesite of the storied 19th-century “miracle-worker,” Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner.
The town of 800 was closed to traffic due to the many religious devotees praying at the shrine of the csodarabbi, Hungarian for “Wonder Rabbi.” Fleets of shuttles carted visitors into city limits by the dozen, departing once every minute or two. Additional shuttles transported people from the village center to the rabbi’s grave on a serene hilltop overlooking the town.
Men, most of them wearing black and white, and a smattering of women, flooded Bodrogkeresztur’s main street, a two-lane road lined with small single-story box houses characteristic of the country’s socialist era.
“We arrived here yesterday, taking a long and difficult route through Poland to reach this holy man,” said 21-year-old Yanky Barzesky, who was making the pilgrimage for the third time from his home in the largely ultra-Orthodox Israeli city of Bnei Brak. “We got in and we prayed, we cried, we slept nearby and awoke to pray again. We’re collecting salvation – we’re collecting it in quantities to take back with us to Israel.”
The increasingly growing popularity of the annual festivities, however, has strained ties with the locals, caused real estate prices in Bodrogkeresztur to skyrocket, and raised concerns about a possible rise in crime as residents depart en masse, leaving an infrastructural vacuum behind.
It’s also given a boost to Hungary’s Jewish community, which is seeing a rise in Orthodox Jewish tourism year-round as supply rises to meet the demand for kosher restaurants and other amenities catering to the religious pilgrims.
A modern shanty town
Bodrogkeresztur, or Kerestir as it is known in Yiddish, was home to a small but thriving Jewish community from the 18th century. In the late 19th century, Steiner, known to devotees simply as Reb Shayale, came to the town and quickly established a reputation as a Hasidic wonder worker famous for his hospitality. Reb Shayale died in 1925, and during the Holocaust, the town’s 535 Jews were sent to the Nazi death camps, where nearly all were murdered.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Reb Shayale’s descendants, most of whom now live in New York, began to return to pray at his gravesite each year on the anniversary of his death. A decade ago the supplicants, mostly Hasidic, numbered in the hundreds. In the last few years, the number of pilgrims has grown exponentially as Reb Shayale’s popularity increases within the Orthodox Jewish mainstream.
The annual event is organized by the Rubin and Friedlander families, both of which are descended from Reb Shayale, but are locked in a bitter feud over who has the rights to manage the proceedings.
As in years past, Steiner’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with the aid of wealthy donors, followed in his footsteps by providing free food and drink around the clock to hungry guests, many of whom were fresh from the road. This year, the grassroots effort had been scaled up massively – and hastily.
Tents capable of holding thousands were erected in any and all open spaces in town, and hundreds of workers and volunteers prepared and served buffet-style meals inside. Improvised synagogues and ritual baths cropped up next to field kitchens, and the temporary structures gave Bodrogkeresztur the impression of a shanty town.
Signs in Yiddish, with occasional translations into English or Hungarian, crowded nearly every empty space, jostling for attention. Hanging from windows and strung across the street, posted into the ground and zip-tied to crowd-control barriers, they directed pedestrians toward ritual baths and prayer rooms, refreshment tents and guest houses. Others advertised spiritual salvation for $50 a month or demarcated VIP sections.
And although the one-time house of the wonder rabbi – which was purchased by his descendants in recent years and used as a hub for the festivities – was located along the main drag, the only local who seemed to be taking in the town’s curious transformation was the mayor, Istvan Rozgonyi.
“The local council and the entire village, we help where we can,” Rozgonyi told The Times of Israel. “This is a very big logistical and security question for our community and we have to prepare regarding parking, security, and the logistics of the crowd.”
“The event receives a mixed reaction because it comes with a lot of inconvenience to the people who live here,” Rozgonyi said. “The reaction is mixed, quite mixed.”
Exponential growth, exponential challenges
With a reported 50,000 people coming from locales as far-flung as the United States, Israel and Europe to ask the rabbi’s heavenly intervention, this year’s influx likely set records for a Jewish European pilgrimage, topping even the notoriously popular pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s grave in Uman, Ukraine, which saw a high of 40,000 visitors in 2018.
“The number of visitors really grew out of proportion in the last few years,” said Rabbi Slomo Koves, head of the Chabad-affiliated EMIH Orthodox umbrella of Jewish communities in Hungary. “Thanks to the efforts of the families putting this together and other donors and facilitators, the awareness of Reb Shayale’s spiritual powers has grown tremendously. Kerestir has become probably the most visited Jewish pilgrimage site outside of Israel — we’re talking about 150,000 people who come yearly. Not just for the anniversary of Reb Shayale’s death, but 365 days a year.”
While this might sound like an economic boon for the town of Bodrogkeresztur, which is located in one of Hungary’s less prosperous regions, Rozgonyi claimed that the town saw few upsides to the deluge of outsiders.
“Unfortunately, the event has a minimal advantage to the local community because everything the pilgrims need, food, drinks, water – and everything they need to prepare it – must be kosher, and they’re not buying anything from the locals,” Rozgonyi said.
“The national economy profits more than we do – the flights in and out of the country, Budapest and Debrecen accommodations, Tokaj accommodations, but our community doesn’t profit from it that much. And this year is the first time that the use of public land will be paid for. But with that said, we are welcoming and waiting for everyone with love,” he said.
According to Rozgonyi, the town does incur some expenses, though the vast majority of the logistical costs related to the event are paid for privately by the Rubin and Friedlander families.
Each branch has set up an independent hub from which they provide an array of services to visitors – the Rubins at Reb Shayale’s former home, and the Friedlanders in a network of tents located further up the hill closer to the rabbi’s gravesite. For the Rubins alone, the overhead for this year’s event was $2 million, said Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin, who oversees his family’s side of the operation. The majority of funds are provided by a variety of donors, he said, with no single donation exceeding $100,000.
Until now, said Rozgonyi, neither family had applied or paid for permits pertaining to building, using public land or providing accommodations and food service. But this year the Rubin family asked for – and received – permission from the local government to orchestrate the event.
“They realized that our interests and goals are the same – peacefully living next to each other and living together,” said Rozgonyi. “They carry on the idea of the wonder rabbi, but others are just trying to make money off it. Starting from this year, the Rubin family is supporting the village, and I hope it carries on this way in the future.”
Despite the Rubins receiving the official go-ahead, the Friedlander family also provided 24-hour hospitality to thousands of guests in their usual encampment.
“The whole point of this event is basically, Reb Shayale. His life’s work was giving food to people, and we’re finding a way to continue that for the last eight or nine years, we’re here in the area giving food, making sure that everyone has enough to eat, and finding salvation,” Rabbi Moshe Yosef Friedlander, the face of the Friedlanders’ efforts, told The Times of Israel.
“For us, the big government is very helpful, but the local mayor, even as of today, he’s trying to do everything to disturb us. And it’s not going to work, we’re going to be here until the [messiah] comes,” he said.
The village’s future in jeopardy
Relations with the locals nearly came to a boiling point during the coronavirus pandemic when thousands of pilgrims entered the country — some of them allegedly with forged permits — to pray at Reb Shalaye’s grave, despite Hungary’s borders being locked to most outsiders, many businesses shuttered, and citizens banned from gathering in groups.
The conspicuous arrival of the multitude of foreigners milling around the town drew the ire of residents who were unable to leave their homes save to buy essentials, and made national headlines (Hungarian link).
Asked about allegations that the Rubin and Friedlander families profited off forged permits, Rubin told The Times of Israel that the families provided genuine permits — issued for the purpose of attending a religious event — through their organizations, which are listed in Hungary as companies.
“There’s no reason if we had an established company there and we made hundreds of legal permits, why we should make fake permits. If we can make a legit permit, why should we do it?” Rubin asked. “The reason why the rumors went out was because there were travel agents and other people that thought making permits is a joke and they can just make a copy of our permits and give it out. And there were people that were stopped in the airport for fake permits, and they saw that it was a permit that was issued for our company, but it was fake.”
A representative of the Friedlander family issued a similar denial, which Rubin affirmed.
“As much as we are in competition and I don’t like a lot of things he does, but for the same reason we didn’t make permits, I wouldn’t believe he would do it. Why should he do it? He also has a company, and he also has the ability to make legal permits. So I won’t believe he did it,” Rubin said.
According to Rozgonyi, relations with the locals may soon be a moot point. “The future of the community and the village here is facing a bigger question,” he said.
Rozgonyi said that over one-third of the village is now owned by foreign investors, who are buying up properties and leaving them unattended most of the year, or else renting them out to religious pilgrims who visit year-round.
“Seven or eight investors are buying up properties – both for food and accommodation,” Rozgonyi said, adding the real estate prices have skyrocketed 500 to 1000% higher than neighboring villages, driving a mass exodus from Bodrogkeresztur.
“There are 400 houses here in the village, and 125 are in the hands of investors, and are not tended to, with a couple of exceptions. If we leave everything as is, in 10 years Bodrogkeresztur as we know it will cease to exist.”
There are also concerns that Bodrogkeresztur may eventually take after Uman, the other major Jewish pilgrimage site in neighboring Ukraine. That city, which is significantly larger than Bodrogkeresztur with 85,000 people, saw a rise in organized crime, drugs, and prostitution in the areas most popular with the religious pilgrims, attributed to a minority — albeit a highly visible one — of Jewish visitors.
“When a guy comes over here and does anything illegal or something, a Jewish guy, he goes home and he doesn’t get the consequences,” said Rubin. “We are here and we get the consequences of all the people that don’t behave as it’s supposed to be. When the government gets mad, they don’t get mad at the individual guy because they don’t even know who he is. They get mad at us.”
One possible solution may come in the form of increased cooperation between Hungary’s Jewish community – which hasn’t historically been connected to Reb Shayale’s legacy – and the local and national governments.
In February of this year, Hungary’s Secretary of State for Churches, Minorities and Civil Affairs Miklos Soltesz met with Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Hungarian Rabbi Slomo Koves in Lau’s Jerusalem office.
At the meeting, Soltesz said (Hungarian link) that a new residential area is being planned near Reb Shayale’s grave that will be able to house tens of thousands of visiting pilgrims. The project would help alleviate congestion for village residents and provide a drastic improvement for guests staying in crowded and uncomfortable conditions in Bodrogkeresztur, as well as ease access to the holy site.
The Times of Israel visited one guesthouse near the wonder rabbi’s house and found dozens of guests staying in bunk beds in a cramped, unfinished space lacking sunlight and privacy.
It was unclear where the funding for the project would come from, but it has been reported (Hungarian link) that 1.6 billion forints ($4.7 million) have been allocated by the Hungarian government towards infrastructure improvement in Bodrogkeresztur.
Asked about claims of crime, the flouting of local regulations and squalid living conditions, Koves was dismissive.
“Although anytime you’ll have thousands of visitors somewhere it is enough for one person to make a [desecration of God’s name], I haven’t heard anything concrete about that,” he said.
Still, Koves said, his organization was approached by the government to help “make it more organized.”
“Although our role is to take care of the needs of the local Jewish community, this pilgrimage has become of such magnitude that we feel we need to help bring together all those involved for the sake of building something precious for all,” Koves said.
A more unified approach would benefit not only the residents of Bodrogkeresztur but the pilgrims themselves, he said.
‘Jews are opening their eyes to Hungary as a great destination’
Koves sees the pilgrimage playing a role in strengthening local Jewish life, as well. Israeli tourists already have an outsized impact on Hungary’s tourism trade, with 144,000 Israelis visiting the country in 2019 alone – the fourth-highest number of non-European visitors.
Coupled with an additional 150,000 religious Jewish pilgrims potentially staying in the country for longer than just a short jaunt to Bodrogkeresztur, “I think that’s ultimately going to have a great effect on Hungarian-Israeli relations, and it’s already having one on the Hungarian economy,” Koves said.
Since 2018, the number of kosher eateries in the Hungarian capital has more than tripled from three restaurants to roughly 10, with options expanding to include kosher cafes, breakfast restaurants, Italian food, sushi, fast food and kürtőskalács, or Hungary’s famous chimney cakes. An exclusively glatt kosher hotel currently operating with a dairy kitchen but soon to include a meat one has also opened this year in the city center.
“I think this really goes hand in hand with a very interesting phenomenon that’s happening in the last few years, that Jews – religious Jews, and in general Israelis – are opening their eyes to Hungary as a great destination,” Koves said. “And not only in the short term sense of bringing even more Jewish and religious tourists to Hungary but also attracting people that are investing, working and living here.”
“It’s in general very accepting to religious Jews, and there’s no Muslim community where you have to be worried – you’re not going to be attacked on the street. So if this pilgrimage is handled in the right way, I foresee it having an additional positive effect on Jewish life in Budapest, which it’s already having. Budapest is becoming a warm, accepting home for Jews and one of the top Jewish centers in Europe.”
Meanwhile, Rozgonyi, who said he spends 10 out of his 12 working hours each day year-round dealing with issues related to the pilgrimage, is also considering the annual event’s future, albeit warily.
“Now we’re preparing for 2025, which is going to be the 100th anniversary of the rabbi’s death — and for that, we’re talking about scary numbers,” he said.