Pesti Shul email@example.com
A View of Jewish Life in Budapest
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a marvelous, vibrant city built on the Danube. It contains about 95% of the Jewish population of Hungary. Among its two million inhabitants, there are an estimated 70 - 130,000 Jews.
The two major historical formations of organized Jewish life in Hungary - the Orthodox and the moderate reform (traditionally called "Neolog") movements - have their roots in the ideological battles of the 19th century. Under Communism, the communities of Holocaust survivors were allowed to function under heavy restrictions. The tight government control of the past decades came to an end in 1990, with the transition of the country's political system into a democracy. Nevertheless, the highly centralized community structure was left virtually unchanged. It is still the backbone of institutional Jewish life in Hungary. Today a few thousand Jews are affiliated with the Neolog community, and a few dozen families belong to the Orthodox community. More than a dozen synagogues are in operation, most of them only on Shabbat and during the Festivals.
A recent Jewish population survey (the first of its kind in Hungary) revealed, among other things, that at least two-thirds of the Jewish population do not attend the synagogue even on the High Holidays; among people under 35 years old the number of those with one or two Jewish grandparents is roughly equal to those with three or four Jewish grandparents.
New Developments in the Jewish Life of Budapest
Over the past decade the establishment of several new institutions - religious, educational, cultural, and social - has added some fresh colors to Jewish life in Budapest and enriched it. The Chabad Lubavitch movement has a fruitful, dynamic, and visible presence. A small Reform community is trying to get a foothold. Preschools and three new Jewish schools, of varying religious outlook, have been established, along with two small yeshivoth (kollelim). The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest (under the auspices of the Neolog community) has been expanded into a Jewish university, training teachers and social workers as well. New Jewish periodicals, the publication of several remarkable books, and frequent conferences on Jewish subjects bear witness to a lively interest in Jewish studies and culture in general. Social services are provided and a summer camp is operated by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Lauder Foundation. Several hundred Israeli students study at Hungarian universities; the integration of Hungary (scheduled to become a member of the European Union in 2004-5) into the Western economy has attracted a good number of Jewish businesspeople from abroad.
Time to act
The new institutions established in the past decade have definitely added to the potential for educating Jews and directing them back toward Jewish traditions, and the number of Jews having any sort of ties with Judaism has certainly increased. Nevertheless, there is no sign of a religious and spiritual renewal. The existing synagogue communities and their rabbis until now have had little success in attracting the tens of thousands of unaffiliated Jews. Religious observance and synagogue attendance continue to decline.
Jews are influential in Hungarian business and academic life, in arts and literature. Most members of this productive and creative Jewish population, however, are entirely alienated from the Jewish tradition. There is still a distinct interest in Jewish culture and religion - and not only among them, but among a great many non-Jews as well, intellectuals and ordinary people alike - but soon it might be too late to recapture the Jewish spark in their souls.
The congregation and the rabbi - these historic, core institutions - are proven worldwide to have the best potential to halt and reverse the prevailing trends of assimilation and intermarriage. We are convinced that, absent a renewal of these institutions in Hungary, no outreach work can be conceived and the disintegration of the once prestigious Jewish community will be irreversible. Without setting out models for a viable, orthodox community life, it can be safely predicted that the Budapest Jewish community with its rich and glorious history, one of the biggest Jewish communities in Central Europe and the only one which survived both the Holocaust and the Communist oppression, will be wiped out within a generation.
Being aware of the circumstances outlined above, considering our own spiritual needs and religious affinities, and perceiving the needs of many Jews in Budapest, we decided to form a new orthodox Jewish congregation in Budapest, named the Pesti Shul.
The kehila acknowledges the traditional halakhic framework of Orthodox Judaism and considers it the authentic expression of the Jewish religious heritage. Under the leadership of our future rabbi, we are committed to building a new congregation; with his guidance, we are willing to "listen, to learn, in order to teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill". The waters of Torah should not and must not be abandoned. Neither can we, most of us university students, university graduates, and young professionals, detach ourselves from contemporary culture. We are certain that a new congregation, led by a dynamic and open-minded rabbi, its communal life based on loyalty to halakha, financial and organizational autonomy, and mutual respect between the rabbi and the congregation, can and must be established in Budapest. Such a community can best serve our commitment to Judaism, and has the best chance to attract Jews and to help them return to Judaism.