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Life is Not a Cream Cake – Shabbat Message 1/23/2015

Posted on 01/23/2015 @ 11:00 AM

It was a cold, blustery morning when my delegation visited the shoe memorial next to the Danube River. Sculptures of shoes lined a segment of the river bank, remembering those Jewish victims who were shot and dumped into the river.

Many North American Jews are worried about the disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in Europe. And there’s certainly plenty of alarming facts to justify this concern. Two weeks ago, the world watched in shock as terrorists murdered innocent employees at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and Jews at a kosher supermarket in France. We said “Je Suis Charlie” and “Je Suis Juif” in solidarity, and we wonder about the future for Jews in France.

From the outside, Hungary is not much different. Jobbik (pronounced “Yo-Bik”), a frightening far-right wing and anti-Semitic political party in Hungary, won 20% of the overall vote in the last election. Hungary recently completed a World War II memorial that depicted the Germans victimizing the Hungarians. It did not acknowledge the Jews or Hungary’s role in deporting and murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews in just 4 months at the end of the war. And there is fear that the current government is attempting to centralize its power in ways that resemble a dictatorship. Our witty and bright tour guide, when bringing us to Hungary’s Parliament Building, quipped: “Such a big building for so little democracy.”

But when we asked the young Jewish Hungarian nonprofit professionals at the Israeli Cultural Institute what their top 5 priorities were as a Jewish community, anti-Semitism wasn’t on the list. In fact, is was specifically not on the list. The Hungarian Jewish community leaders, when asked, made it clear that they don’t want to be identified by anti-Semitism.

Instead, they highlighted other focus areas like “Inclusion” (they are one of the few communities that welcomes the LGBTQ community) and “Sustainability” (they are working to develop a culture of fundraising and giving back to the community). There are 100,000 Jews in Budapest. And they mostly define themselves as “cultural” and “not religious.” In fact, one person we spoke to said that members of his family hadn’t been to synagogue in 120 years, so why would he start now? He is proudly Jewish, and a leader at the JCC. The Pew Study highlighted the trend that North American Jews are identifying less with Judaism as a religion. Imagine what Pew would say about Hungarian Jews! And yet, they have a vibrant community – and they can teach us a thing or two about how to sustain a dynamic Jewish community that identifies primarily as “culturally Jewish.”

I asked our tour guide if she had thought about moving from Hungary if things continued to get worse. Barring really explicit danger, the answer seemed to be no – Hungary was her home. She loves the sour cherry strudel and the Danube, even though it flows with the memory of the blood of Jewish Holocaust victims. She sighed, and then she taught us the Hungarian phrase that would become the motto of our trip: “Life is not a cream cake.”

Ira Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Eastern Hub, recently returned from a trip to Hungary and Israel with JPRO.

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