By Megan Maurer, Indianapolis – Triteam 2012
I recently returned from ten days in Budapest and Israel with Tri Team, an initiative of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether program. Partnership2Gether aims to connect Jewish communities in the Diaspora to communities in Israel through people to people exchanges. These programs may be related to education, medicine, business, or arts and culture.
The specific mission of Tri Team was to connect young Jewish leaders in Budapest, Indianapolis and Louisville, and the Western Galilee, with a strong focus on issues relating to Jewish identity. Candidates were chosen for their involvement in their respective communities and for their leadership capability.
I had been eagerly anticipating this journey since joining the Tri Team initiative one year ago. I was looking forward to meeting and bonding with other Tri Team members and to learning more about the long Jewish history in Budapest. I was actually excited for the sleep deprivation and lack of bathroom breaks that are quintessential characteristics of these types of mission trips. Of course, I was elated by the prospect of being on Israeli soil and of breathing in the fresh sea air that floats into the Western Galilee. On this trip, I got all of this and more. Perhaps most striking, however, was a fuller and more accurate appreciation for the state of Hungarian Jewry and, by extension, world Jewry.
Centuries of foreign rule and the devastation of two world wars have left their mark on Hungarian society. Freedom and democracy as defined by America does not necessarily exist throughout Europe. This is true in Budapest, a city with fascinating history and architectural beauty juxtaposed with intolerance and xenophobia has allowed an openly anti-Semitic political party to hold seats and real power in the Hungarian parliament. It is my impression that the Jewish community members in Budapest, numbering perhaps as many as 100,000, for obvious reason often do not wish to belong to synagogues or Jewish organizations, or otherwise be identifiable as Jewish. This fact of Hungarian Jewish life was hard to understand for those of us who are a part of the Jewish Federation system in America—Jews getting a list of other Jews, calling those Jews in an effort to raise money for other Jews that neither the solicitor nor the giver will likely ever meet.
Our first session in Hungary entailed presenting a treasured Jewish object and what it means to you. My Hungarian counterparts brought objects with incredible stories of how they uncovered their Jewish roots: one woman, shortly after the fall of Communism, was taken on an errand by her grandfather to retrieve a “book” she had never heard of from a “strangely dressed man with many children” (the newly arrived Chabadnik) she had never before seen; another told of seeing Fiddler on the Roof and listening to the soundtrack for days until her grandparents shared the secret that they were indeed Jewish.
After the Shoah, communism, and an extended period of suppression of religion and identity, searching for Judaism for these young people is no easy task. The resurgence of anti-Semitism makes this task even more difficult. The ADL maintains that Hungary is one of the three most anti-Semitic countries in Europe. In France, prominent politician Marine Le Pen is seeking to ban the kippah. In Germany, the Cologne Regional Court ruled against circumcisions. Norway and Denmark have banned certain types of kosher slaughtering. In Malmo, Sweden, a Jewish community building was attacked with bricks and explosives. None of these countries even made the top three. We travelled Budapest with this sad fact in mind, and with the constant presence of our local guard, Daniel.
However, there is reason for optimism. As one Israeli participant said, “We can never be broken. Wherever there is life, there is beauty.” After such a difficult period, Hungarian Jewry has survived. Do my Hungarian counterparts express Judaism as we do? Probably not. What has sustained the Judaism in my Tri Team mates was a spirit of Tikkun Olam that earned my utmost respect and admiration. I have been humbled by their commitment to Judaism through Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam, or repairing and healing the world, is a Jewish tradition that can be traced back to the Mishnah, one of two ancient books comprising the Talmud. My Hungarian friends honor Judaism by honoring our mutual tradition of Tikkun Olam.
On our third day in Budapest we were taken to a Roma village named Bag. The Roma people, sometimes disparagingly referred to as Gypsies, were historically a nomadic people. Now, so close to the coffee shops overlooking the Danube, the Roma live in third world conditions: Some children without clothes, all barefoot, homes uninhabitable and a palpable pall of hopelessness clouding the sky. As our Hungarian friends led us into this village, the children leapt into the arms of their beloved volunteers. For many, this is the only interaction with the greater society that they get to experience. I will be forever haunted by the look in the eyes of a little girl who would not let me go. Amidst their own whirlwind of existential threats, this community volunteers regularly in Bag. This is the true spirit of Tikkun Olam and the embodiment of the social and moral ideals that have sustained us as a people through the millennia.
I ask myself: if we in America were facing such hostility, if New York City banned circumcision and Oklahoma was attempting to ban the kippah and if the JCC was bombed in Miami, and kosher slaughtering banned in Los Angeles, and the rise of a right wing anti-Semitic party imminent, would we be out helping those people in even more dire situations that our own? I am not sure of the answer, but know that the young people in Hungary should serve as our moral compass.
Jews across the world define themselves differently, whether it is by community and cultural involvement, synagogue membership, or even nationality. Many of the Hungarian Jews are unaffiliated with synagogues and do not frequent community centers. But make no mistake- they are completely Jewish and indisputably affiliated with Judaism, sustained and providing sustenance through Tikkun Olam.
At the close of our time together, we were asked if our Jewish object was still the same. One man simply answered, “You all are my Jewish object. You are my connection to Judaism.” I can say wholeheartedly that this group and experience is an inextricable part of the link in my chain of Judaism as well.
‘The Triteam group at the elderly home in Budapest’