I.S. is one of the most prominent members of the Chabad in Budapest. He has been living in Budapest for years although he is originally from the United States. This interview was done through a zoom meeting, unlike previous ones.
Do you consider yourself a reform, conservative, or orthodox Jew? What is your history with Judaism?
Okay, Judaism, so I was born in South Florida into an Orthodox Jewish Family, actually Chabad Chasidic Jewish family. In South Florida, there’s actually a very vibrant Jewish community.
And, so I grew up pretty much in the fold and was educated, went through the yeshiva system, finished up my rabbinical studies in New York, and then as, as this, very common Chabad families afterward we, set up a center somewhere in the world. This was always a dream of mine and this was the assignment. This was Budapest. About five years.
Okay, so why is Judaism important to you?
So Judaism and, more importantly the Torah is really the manual to life is Judaism. Life is very complicated, and all different areas, personal, communal and family, and it really gives a lot of light to all of these, to all of these issues that we come into in life. And actually, it's interesting the Zohar says that God looked into the Torah and created the world. So really, eventually the, the Torah is like a blueprint; the Zohar calls it a blueprint for the universe, how God created the universe.
So if you want to be in touch with the coding of the universe specifically through learning and, uh, practicing of Torah.
What makes the synagogue a valuable place other than a place to pray?
So actually, the word synagogue, its origin is Greek, which means a place of gather, house of gathering.
That's the way you say it in Hebrew as well. Beit a Knesset, a House of Gathering, and really, It's not only a place, even though it might be primarily a place where we pray most, but more importantly, a synagogue is also, especially today, where until, until you can educate about prayer, we have to start sometimes from more basic and fundamental things.
So it's a place where people gather, and they strengthen each other, and they inspire each other. Synagogues have become more of a community center as well. It’s with the source of the word, a house of gathering
Are new movements of Judaism appearing in the synagogues or in the Jewish communities of Hungary?
For example, The Chabad movement here in Hungary is fairly new, 30 years old. There are many throughout the past 10 years, many Chabad throughout the city and throughout the country. So we definitely see a new awakening and new synagogues as well.
Okay. So how has demonstrating Jewishness and celebrating Judaism changed since Communist rule 1990?
Okay. So obviously you can't compare. This is very, very difficult to keep. Uh, although in Hungary it wasn’t as difficult as in the Soviet Union, they weren’t as strict about it, it wasn’t as difficult as there but it was very very difficult.
And many Jews entirely lost their identity and many Jewish families today that we come in contact with are, are due to communism, are not at all practicing. So that's why anyone that really wanted to keep some sort of tradition, many traditional Jews and religious Jews left the country in 1956 when there was a chance.
Because it was very difficult to keep Judaism. So that's something which is very different today. Today you can say in Hungary because of the reawakening of the work that Chabad has done here and other Jewish communities, it's really something celebrated today.
How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected your practice of Judaism?
So regards to the coronavirus. We have seen that it actually had had a, there was an interesting element that the online presence of Chabad became much stronger and it brought, brought about a lot of awareness. Because many people are a little bit hesitant to come into a synagogue, something which can be, uh, intimidating, but to come to be able to watch something online, so they're able to get a taste for it and a taste for the teachers, for the rabbis, for the communities. And later, like today, when, when Covid is, uh, we’re a little bit more lax now with the regulations. So there were a lot of new faces that showed up, people that had connected with us and from the online platform.
So that actually has affected us in a positive way, that aspect. Obviously, together with that, many people are still, are still very cautious and have not yet, not yet continued or started coming to the synagogue again in regards to in-person so it has and suffers addition to unfortunately many lives that have been in our community as well.
Yeah, I think something pretty similar is happening in my community too. I know my temple near me, they streamed their services during the pandemic. And I think also it brought new people in, like you said.
And in general, the pandemic brought a lot of awareness, people started asking questions.
People started getting their middle crisis earlier. So that always, when that happens, people always start to, you know, they go back to god they go back to their roots. They start looking for answers and it brings a lot of back people back home.
So are you seeing more signs that the population of Hungary is becoming more religious or more secular? From what you said about The Coronavirus, maybe that caused more people to become religious?
So are people becoming religious? People are definitely engaging more in Jewish traditions and, Mitzvot and good deeds than, than before that, that is for sure.
And there are many families that are becoming even entirely kosher and religious. But here we're focusing a big focus of, just to bring about a lot of awareness, to give every Jew the opportunity to connect in his own way in time. And in that we, we, we see major success. So we're also, we have our centers spread out throughout all the, throughout the city.
The interviewee viewed the questions before the interview. He decided to address all questions about antisemitism and the Hungarian government in one statement. For examples of these types of questions, see past interviews. His views aligned with the religious orthodox community who regard the Hungarian government positively, unlike the more secular and Neolog Jewish community.
Thank God we, we have a little to zero antisemitism, so there's a very mild and not aggressive, definitely not violent in any way type of antisemitism. And I don’t know, if it's, if it's, um, like, I don't know the official, the official stats, I'm just telling you the feeling of the feeling here. I've lived here for five years and I haven't bumped into any sort of antisemitism. Obviously we look different, especially if you are, if you go out with a kipa and you wear your beards, and your tzitzis out and obviously people generally are, are less accepting to people that look different than them. And there's a lot of times it comes to curiosity or people are just, might be a little bit judgemental in that aspect.
But in regards to safety, there's absolutely, there's absolutely no, no worry about it. Very, very safe here. And we all feel that way. So Jewish community very safe here.
And the governemnt completely has zero tolerance for it, the government actually helps fund the Jewish communities, organizations that fight anti-Semitism. Any little incident that comes up, and again, usually these incidents are not at, not at all. I mean, maybe it's just a few incidents a year and they're not at all violent with injuries, but anything, any, anything that comes up is not tolerated at all.
And right away the police get involved. They, they warn the person and it sits there really is zero tolerance for it. So in that sense, thank God Hungary’s a very safe place to be a Jew and to practice Judaism.