The change of leadership of the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community of Hungary (MAOIH) has been one of the most high-profile Jewish domestic political events. As reported by our newspaper, the Prime Minister’s Office approved the decisions of the community’s general assembly held in February, during which former president Róbert György Deutsch and secretary general Tamás Somlai (Zeév Páskesz) were replaced by Gábor Keszler and Rabbi Shmuel Oirechman. Our newspaper contacted the new leaders to ask them about their plans.
Some accuse you of taking control of the MAOIH against their will. How do you see this issue?
Gábor Keszler: Nothing could be further from the truth. It didn’t receive much attention, but last October the congregation adopted new bylaws, which are significantly more democratic than the previous ones, replacing the document that had given the president almost unlimited powers.
This document was presented and adopted by Róbert Deutsch and Zeev Páskesz.
The February General Assembly was convened and conducted along these bylaws, and new leaders were elected by the membership according to these bylaws. The Prime Minister’s Office, which is required by law to register such changes, approved the February decision precisely because it was in order.
On Thursday, the day of the Prime Minister’s Office decision, Róbert Deutsch put a padlock on the synagogue and the building complex.
G.K.: We would have liked to have conducted the transfer of the building in accordance with the rules of national and religious law with the former head of the MAOIH, who instead closed the synagogue and the kosher restaurant in the building complex, which was important for serving the community and tourists. His attitude was hostile in every respect.
How did they manage to get in?
G.K.: The fundamental mission of a religious institution is to provide a life of faith, and one person cannot hold that hostage.
Fortunately, the MAOIH security service saw through the legal situation and literally opened the gates to the new leadership, without any specific request.
Many people simplify what happened by saying you wanted to come to power in order to merge the MAOIH with EMIH.
Shmuel Oirechman: Unfortunately, the community is in such a bad state, both financially and spiritually, that there is no need to draw such far-reaching conclusions. The priority is to save and revitalize the community.
How do you envisage all this?
G.K.: In my opinion, it is an important step that the new bylaws divide the power, which has been concentrated in the hands of one person until now, between the president and the general secretary and allows the management and the membership more influence than before.
S.O.: Gábor is a Jew born in Budapest, from a traditional Jewish family. He knows the domestic history, conditions and dynamics well. I myself have an extensive international network of contacts, thanks to which, thank G-d, I was able to help EMIH a lot, and now I will also help MAOIH.
Are there concrete plans on the horizon?
S.O.: I am in close contact with four internationally known philanthropists who have a heart for the cause of Hungarian Jewry, but up until now, due to the non-transparent management, they have waited to send their donations. However, they now see in our people a guarantee that the funds will be used properly.
It is important to note that we do not want to build the community on a commercial basis, but to make it a center that serves, at an appropriate level, the community and the large number of tourists and pilgrims who visit it.
In the spirit of Jewish tradition, we are opening our doors wide, making the Dob-Kazinczy Street complex a center accessible around the clock, which we will fill with traditional Jewish life as a harachasat orchim, a classic hospitality and pilgrimage accommodation.
And what about the domestic audience?
S.O.: Without pointing fingers backward and looking for those responsible, we can say that the religious community has not used its resources to the fullest.
Our main task is to serve local Jews interested in Orthodoxy and traditions.
The goal is to save the community from total destruction and to set it on a path of growth. Therefore, we invite everyone to the table. The former leadership and congregants as well as those who have been left out of the decision-making process.
Some people have warned that with your emergence, traditional Hungarian Orthodoxy could disappear and the customs of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement could take over.
S.O.: This is completely absurd, we have no such objective. It is not even possible. Contrary to all rumors, this is not the philosophy of Chabad either. The only aim is to ensure and promote the preservation of the Jewish tradition. In matters of faith, religious philosophy if you like, we do not wish to interfere; we leave that entirely to the community. To give you an example: After many years, it would be important for the community to have a permanent rabbi in Budapest.
We would be happy to help you find the right person, for example, if only because of my extensive network of contacts. But we do not want to make the decision alone.
What about the workers and employees of the parish?
G.K.: We are not planning any personnel changes. We are counting on all employees and workers who want to work with us to revitalize the congregation. That is the only criterion.
How will they get started on this work?
S.O.: Unfortunately, the previous administration did not facilitate a smooth handover, and Deutsch locked the building, posting a sign saying it was a construction site, and when we tried to get in, he called the police on us.
The situation was resolved, as we said, thanks to the security service, and the Hanna restaurant was able to open and synagogue life could resume. May 8 was Lag B’Omer. This is a celebration of Jewish togetherness. So, we invited everyone to sit down and talk. This is in the interest of traditional Hungarian Jewry.