Budapest undoubtedly has the largest and most active Jewish community in East Central Europe, the area that includes Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, among other countries located between Russia and Germany. In our meetings with Jewish community leaders here the complexity of the Hungarian Jewish community’s composition became clear.
We began at the Balint JCC, which we visited twice, where we met with the Director of the JCC, Zsuzsa Fritz, and Katja, who works for the Joint Distribution Committee. Zsuzsa grew up not knowing that she was Jewish at all. In fact, her first inkling was when she attended her grandfather's funeral under the Hungarian communist regime, and was surprised to discover that it was a Jewish funeral. She realized that her grandfather had to be Jewish, and she must be as well. Figuring that something so important that it had to be hidden must have value, she started engaging in Jewish activities. It wasn't much at first, but her involvement grew and grew. When she started there wasn’t much in the way of Jewish organizational or congregational life. Today, 26 years after the end of Communism in Hungary, there are 45 different Jewish organizations in Hungary, mostly in Budapest.
Katja’s story is equally interesting. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she had almost exclusively very negative impressions of religion from communist background, and her parents certainly did not encourage her connections to Judaism. But when she began to travel she had many positive and varied Jewish experiences around the world, in places as unexpected as Christchurch, New Zealand. She went on Birthright, and then worked for Birthright for several years. She took Judaic Studies at university, and eventually became a Jewish tour guide in Budapest, finally getting the JDC job, which includes working in a variety of capacities to connect young Jews to their heritage, helping out at the very important Jewish camp in Southern Hungary, and more.