Back to My Roots

Back to My Roots

by Rabbi Ferenc Raj (current rabbi of Bet Orim community in Budapest)
from 2003, originally appeared on Congregation Beth El website

There I was, in Hungary, the place of my birth and my early rabbinic years. I understood every word people spoke, I had no problem communicating and I was able to find my way around the labyrinths of the gorgeous, metropolitan city of Budapest. I spent time with my many childhood friends and close family members. Yet, I felt like a visitor, a tourist, in my own native country.
In today’s Hungary there are only two officially recognized Jewish movements, Orthodox and Neologue. In spite of the valiant efforts of the Lubavitch group, which maintains a small synagogue in Budapest, Orthodoxy appeals to just a few hundred people. The main stream has always been Neologue, which in American terms, used to be something in between Reform and Conservative Judaism. The very term Neologue is of Greek origin and means “new thought.” Adherents to the movement, which was organized in the 1860’s, were conservative in religious practice while their ideology was liberal.

The Jewish community has changed so dramatically in these last couple of decades, especially since the fall of Communism. Today’s Neologue Temples are much closer to the American Young Israel Synagogues (Modern American Orthodoxy), than to the Conservative movement with which they officially affiliate and identify. I observed that Berkeley’s Beth Israel grants more rights to women than any of the Neologue Temples in Budapest. The emerging rabbinic leadership absolutely does not tolerate egalitarian services. The average member has lost any commonality with their religious and spiritual leaders. Out of Hungary’s one hundred thousand Jews, only ten thousand are affiliated with synagogues that are under the umbrella of the Union of Hungarian Jews.

In Hungary, not dissimilar to many other European countries, generous government allocations support all religious institutions, including the synagogues. In spite of the fact that voluntary contributions are minimal, the smooth financial functioning is assured. Interestingly, the well-paid staff of the Union is neither observant nor religious.

In contrast to the Orthodox and Neologue synagogues, the newly formed, small Reform Jewish community of Hungary, Sim Shalom, is supported by donations from its congregants and members of its British sister synagogues as well as by subsidies from the World Union for Progressive Judaism. It is not supported by the Hungarian government since it has not been recognized by the other two historic Jewish movements. The only way Sim Shalom could become eligible for aide would be to register as a new religious sect, not as a Jewish community. Clearly, this is not an acceptable compromise for the community. (* the situation changed since 2003 – Ed. *)

During my stay in Budapest, I spent many hours with Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, the first and only woman rabbi in Hungary, discussing, among other things, the fate of Hungarian Jews and the future possibilities that might open up for the Jewish community of Hungary. I also attended Shabbat eve services, which are held in a rented apartment. The living room functions as the sanctuary, the dining room as the study hall and the bedroom as the office. Embarrassingly, the flat I rented was much larger. I felt at home since their services are quite similar to ours. They are conducted by three soloists and the rabbi. Katalin’s style was rather informal as she taught her inexperienced but enthusiastic audience. I also gave a teaching, and led a discussion. I could not help but notice that, of the forty people in attendance, all were either over 55 or under 30 years of age.

The tale of Sim Shalom’s Torah scroll reveals so much about Hungarian Jewish history and perhaps allows us a glance into the promising future of this unusual congregation. Let me quote from a sermon Katalin delivered in Zurich, Switzerland at the annual conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

“The theme of our Conference is: Progressive Judaism beyond the Shoah. Very symbolic of what is happening is the tale of our Torah scroll. Our Sefer Torah was originally the personal property of a Hassidic Jew from Ujfeherto in North Eastern Hungary, who managed to survive the Shoah. When he made Aliyah to Israel, the baggage allowance was too small to include a Torah scroll, so he left it in the care of his non-Jewish daughter-in-law.”
“Many years later, shortly before he died, he asked the daughter-in-law to see that it gets into the hands of Jews, who would use it. A common acquaintance, Aranka Sos, herself a survivor of Auschwitz and one of the founding members of Sim Shalom, heard about the existence of this scroll. Sim Shalom wanted to get a Sefer Torah. And it was just when Rabbi Fred Morgan was paying one of his many visits to Budapest. He went with some members of our community to see the scroll and they were surprised and delighted to find that it was in excellent condition, only needing minor repairs to some of the edges where mice had chewed a bit. Fred bought the Torah on the spot and on behalf of his community North West Surrey Synagogue in Weybridge donated it to Sim Shalom, after it was repaired.”

“Now on Simchat Torah, after we have blessed our children, and when everyone at Sim Shalom is taking a turn at dancing with our resurrected Sefer Torah, for us God does exist, and we no longer miss Him so.”

Paraphrasing the prayer we recite at weddings, may I add, “O God, may there always be heard in the cities of Hungary and in the streets of Budapest, the sounds of joy and of happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.

B’virkat shalom,