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The World Jewish Congress came to Budapest to warn Hungary of growing anti-Semitism in the country. While there are worrisome cases of anti-Semitism, the capital boasts a vivid Jewish life, with new synagogues and vibrant civic initiatives.
As representatives of the World Jewish Congress gathered in Budapest this week, the spotlight fell on the Jewish community's everyday life in Hungary. It's rare for the WJC to hold its plenary assembly outside Jerusalem. Why in Budapest?
“We want to send a strong signal that Hungary, home to the third-largest Jewish community in the European Union, is on a dangerous track,” stated Ron Lauder, WJC president.
Certainly, anti-Semitism is part of public and political life in Hungary. But it's not nearly as significant as, say, the conflicts between Roma and non-Roma, which is a problem that many average Hungarians encounter everyday. Relying on international press reports, one can easily imagine that Nazi gangs march the streets and Jewish people have to live their life terrorized by daily threats. Fortunately, the real situation is far from this.
Jewish life in Hungary is very much Budapest-centered. Hungary is quite dominated by the capital. With a metropolitan-area population of 2.5 million people, one in every four Hungarian citizens lives in Budapest. But there is also a depressing historical reason for that: local Jewish communities in villages and towns outside Budapest - as Balázs Ablonczy wrote in Mandiner's print predecessor - were wiped out during the Holocaust. Those rural Jewish communities were deported by the Hungarian State. Hungary was under German occupation and command at the time, but it was the Hungarian gendarmerie who carried out the awful deed of sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens to a destination from which there was no return.
One can see in the old, abandoned (yet often maintained) Jewish cemeteries in rural Hungary that hardly any gravestones were erected after 1945. Most of the former synagogues serve today as local cultural centers, with no religious function. It's always heartbreaking to see former temples losing their sacred purposes. Even in those bigger towns, where the synagogues still serve as a temple, Jewish communities are usually very small.
But Budapest lives on as one of the main centers of Jewish life in Europe. The traditional Jewish quarter of the city, the inner part of the 7th disctrict, is vibrant. It's not like Cracow, where the former Jewish quarter has become just a bohemian neighbourhood. Any day of the week in downtown Budapest, on Síp or Kazinczy streets, you'll see people dressed in traditional Hasidic clothes.
Twenty-four actively functioning synagogues and many other cultural and educational institutions serve the community's needs. In 2010, the 190 year-old synagogue of Óbuda - which served as a TV studio for decades - was re-dedicated. "The re-opening of this synagogue," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, celebrating the occasion with Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, "is a true symbol of the Jewish renaissance in Hungary."
It was the first synagogue in the region in 60 years to be returned to the Jewish community. And it's not a unique example. In the last 80 years, not a single new temple had been built for the Jewish community, but in Csepel, a district in southern Budapest, construction of a new synagogue got underway this January. Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor attended the groundbreaking celebration along with Hungarian Minister of Defense Csaba Hende. The land was donated by the local city government.
A street with new name
Just two months ago in Józsefváros, the 8th district of Budapest, a short street was named after Sándor Scheiber, a former director of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Today's Budapest University of Jewish Studies was founded in 1877, so it's the oldest still-functioning institution in the world for the education of rabbis. On the renaming ceremony, Máté Kocsis, the mayor of the district and the communications director of the ruling party, Fidesz, noted that "Mr. Scheiber was both proud of being Jewish and being Hungarian."
We could cite many other examples from the positive side of contemporary Jewish culture, from guided tours for adults and children about the - often hidden - Jewish heritage of the city, to the disctrict6disctrict7 festival. Although these instances do not annul the presence of anti-Semitism, they do show another side of Hungary. It's a Hungary that has seen a long list of improvements over the last several years that welcome its Jewish residents and remind them that they're at home.
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