Two decades after the fall of communism, a new generation of Jewish leaders is emerging in Hungary and “reclaiming their Judaism.”
That was the message heard by leaders of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County who visited the country and Israel last month as part of a Jewish Federations of North America mission.
Lay leaders Sheri Tarrab, vice president of Campaign, and Sheryl Grutman, president of Women’s Philanthropy, traveled to Hungary in late July before going on to Israel. Two federation staff members, financial resource and development director Evan Levitt and Women’s Philanthropy associate Sharon Raanan, also took part.
Their seven-day trip was an opportunity to see projects funded by the Monmouth federation and its partners under the JFNA umbrella.
“Judaism in Hungary is back,” Levitt said after returning home. “It is young and dynamic and energized. It is ‘re-booting,’ and donors to federation’s Annual Campaign deserve the credit.”
In Budapest, once home to half a million Jews, a tour of the Jewish district included synagogues restored since the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, Hungary’s Jewish population stands at 120,000.
Mission-goers met those in their early 20s who are heading up local Jewish activities. Their efforts are being facilitated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, federation’s overseas partners.
At the Balint House, Budapest’s Jewish Community Center, they were shown a number of projects, including one for at-risk kids, and a special Jewish educational program for Jews and non-Jews.
Next came a day of profound contrasts. First, they visited the location on the banks of the Danube where Jews were shot and killed during the Shoa. Then the mission boarded a bus and traveled two hours to the site of life and fresh hope — the Szarvas overnight camp.
The JDC is running the camp in collaboration with the Lauder Foundation. Each summer, 2,000 children attend for 12 days to learn about Judaism. The cost per camper is $1,000, $750 of which is subsidized by the federation’s overseas partners — with the help of funds from its annual campaign.
“The camp opened its doors in 1990, and today its leaders were its first campers,” the members wrote in a report issued on the trip. “Many campers go on to make aliya and to help restore Judaism in their home communities.”
“This camp is key to sustaining Judaism not only in Hungary but throughout Eastern Europe,” the report added.
In Israel, the mission members got a further taste of federation’s impact.
Arriving July 11, which happened to be Grutman’s birthday, they went directly to Tel Aviv University for a meeting with a panel that included professors, a television anchorwoman, and one of the coauthors of Start-Up Nation, a book about Israel’s economic success.
That evening they attended a gala dinner at the Diaspora Museum, also on the TAU campus, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, the rescue of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The keynote speaker was former refusenik Natan Sharanksy, now executive chairman of JAFI.
“This was a fantastic event,” Grutman said. “It represented everything that federation does, is doing, and will do in the future. There were tears in everyone’s eyes as we learned how far the refuseniks have come and all they have accomplished. I had goose bumps the entire night.”
Tarrab said for her this mission represented hatikva — hope. She was the first member of her family to visit Hungary since her grandmother left it 93 years ago at age four. She was delighted by the spirit of the young Jews they met, people whose grandparents endured the Holocaust and whose parents were deprived of their Judaism by the communists — and there they are, “embracing their Judaism,” she said.
In Israel, too, she said, they saw young people in action. Among the projects they visited was Youth Futures in Netivot in southern Israel, a program — funded by the federation — which offers at-risk youth role models and help moving forward in their lives. They also visited a developing community in the Negev established by Ayalim, an association of young Israelis who see themselves as the country’s new pioneers.
“These young people are our future,” she said. “They are our hope.”