Shlomo Köves — Perspectives on Hungary’s rural Jewry

Twelve months ago, the website Bennem Élő Eredet (my ancestry or the heritage living within me”) was launched. In a series of interviews, the site is now asking Jewish organizations in Hungary about what has happened in the past year and what they plan to do in 2022. Those included have important ties to the Hungarian countryside, may have members outside of Budapest, and have a historical importance and/or public impact. (The same questions are asked of all interviewees, although they are not obliged to provide answers to them all.) 

Shlomo Köves, Chief Rabbi of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH), has had a busy year despite the epidemic situation, and his community has big plans for this year. They are planning to open kosher restaurants and new Jewish centers in Debrecen and Miskolc, and are preparing to build a kosher guesthouse in Mád.

Last autumn, EMIH organized many synagogue re-openings, mostly in Budapest, but nothing similar had ever been experienced in recent years. The rabbi says they now have about half a thousand active members in their rural bases.

How many times did you visit the countryside in 2021 because of your Jewish-related commitments? (When was the last time?)

Many times. The last time, I was in Debrecen and Miskolc for Hanukkah, I went to the candle-lighting ceremonies there. I was also lucky enough to visit the recently renovated and beautiful synagogue in Kőszeg, where we also lit candles. 

What were the most important rural events of your organization/community in 2021?

The Jewish Days in Mád was perhaps our most important event. We were very happy to be able to do it at the end of June last year after a year off due to the pandemic. Equally important were our Hanukkah candle-lighting events in the countryside in Miskolc, Debrecen and Szentendre, where we were able to bring the message of Jewish joy to many people.

To your knowledge, how many people in the countryside are members of your organization/community?

There are some parts of the Hungarian countryside where we either have a fixed rabbi or we have permanent activities. These are Debrecen, Miskolc, Szentendre, Keszthely and Kőszeg at the moment. In these places, we have regular programs and organized religious life. In Miskolc, Rabbi Joshua Fuchs and his wife organize various programs, prayers and study groups several times a week.

Our new center is being built in Miskolc, where we will have a kosher food stall, a small nursery, and a prayer house on Kazinczy Street.

In Debrecen, Rabbi Samuel Faigen has been working with his wife for many years, and they are very active. He is the rabbi of the local Hungarian community, including the local Mazsihisz community, but he is also a person to whom Israeli students studying there can always turn. Hundreds of people visit him on a weekly basis. Every day, he leads prayers in the morning and in the evening, he organizes studies and also teaches at the university.

In Debrecen, our new EMIH center is ready, not far from the synagogue, where a kosher restaurant will also open.

Then, we have a small community in Kőszeg, which in principle meets weekly. In Keszthely it’s more or less the same, the members of the EMIH congregation meet on Fridays. Finally, there is Szentendre, where Rabbi Mendy Myers and his wife are also strengthening our base with several weekly programs and a growing community. I believe that

all in all we have at least 400–500 active and proud rural members who keep in touch virtually, or attend our programs on some regular basis, and occasionally visit us in Budapest.

What are your greatest moments of pride and greatest regrets regarding your organization/community’s rural operations in 2021?

Our greatest pride is the completion of the Debrecen headquarters on Piac Street. Our biggest regret is that we could not open it. We had planned to do so during Hanukkah, but Covid made it impossible.

Describe your rural organization/community based on its performance in 2021?

In Budapest and in the countryside, the epidemic situation determined when it was and was not possible to organize something. What we are proud of is that our rural rabbis and communities have, if nothing else, come together virtually and maintained continuity. This was also evident in the fact that as soon as we reopened, our synagogues were once again full of life.

What are your main priorities and plans for 2022 in the countryside?

In the first half of the year, Covid permitting, we will open the Debrecen center and we plan to complete the Miskolc center in the summer. In Mád, where we have our rabbi’s house and synagogue, we want to realize an old plan of ours of building a kosher boarding house there. I very much hope that the construction of this can start in 2022, opposite the synagogue in Mád, on Kossuth Lajos Street.

What would you do to encourage more young people to join the activities of rural organizations/communities in 2022?

I think that we already have a spectacular and popular program in Budapest that attracts thousands of people, and it is time to implement something equivalent in a larger rural city.

And that is the sólet festival. It does not have to be exactly the same, but it would be nice to create something similar this year. The key is to have it outdoors, in a good location, and accompanied by fun and quality activities. This would also be a way to reach out to people who are not yet connected to their local Jewish community in their respective rural area.

Róbert Deutsch — Fostering a sense of commitment and responsibility to Judaism

Twelve months ago, the website Bennem Élő Eredet was launched. In a series of interviews, the site is now asking Jewish organizations in Hungary about what has happened in the past year and what they plan to do in 2022.