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Jews in Hungary thrive under nation's conciliatory laws

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1985



Budapest

It is Saturday morning at the Dohany Street synagogue. A young rabbi intones a declaration of Jewish belief, and several hundred faithful, young and old, sway in prayer.

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In the rest of Eastern Europe, Jewish communities are composed largely of the aging survivors, small in number, of Adolf Hitler's Holocaust.

In Warsaw, for example, a monument represents the sole remaining evidence of the vibrant prewar ghetto. In Prague, a few old men are left to celebrate the Jewish festivals at Europe's oldest surviving synagogue, built in 1290.

In contrast, as the Sabbath scene here shows, Budapest boasts a thriving Jewish community, the region's largest.

Geza Seifert, the secretary-general of the Board of Hungarian Jews, says Budapest is home to a total of 100,000 Jews. In addition to the enormous Dohany synagogue, Europe's second biggest, she says the community supports Eastern Europe's only rabbinical seminary, an outstanding Jewish museum, 26 neighborhood synagogues, a Jewish day school, a Jewish newspaper, a Jewish hospital, three old age homes, and even a Jewish holiday home.

``All those people who said this community had no future after Hitler were wrong,'' asserts Dr. Seifert. ``All those people who said we had no future in this social system were wrong, too.''

But this optimism for the future must be tempered. Last spring, at the congress of the Hungarian Communist Party, speakers warned about the dangers of a revival of anti-Semitism.

Hungary is going through economic hard times, and since many of the country's leading economic advisers are Jewish (such as Janos Fekete at the National Bank and Ivan Berendt at the National Academy of Sciences), the fear is that the Jew will once more become the scapegoat.

``Anti-Semitism hasn't ceased to exist,'' says Peter Bugar, vice-president of the state religion office. ``Before, we approached this question timidly. Now we must face it openly.''

Mr. Bugar's admission represents remarkable candor. Jews in the Soviet Union complain of officially sponsored anti-Semitism and of obstacles to practicing their religion and to emigrate.

In other East-bloc countries with few Jewish citizens, officials dismiss suggestions of similar problems.

For example, Adam Lopatka, Polish minister for religious affairs, said in a Monitor interview this past June that anti-Semitism ``is a problem belonging to history.'' At the same time, however, rumors, some officially spread, insinuated that prominent opposition leader Adam Michnik, a Jew, is not ``a true Pole.''

In contrast to the confrontational attitudes toward religion of other communist governments, the regime of Janos Kadar preaches conciliation. For Jews, this means that they are not treated as a separate nationality, as they are in the Soviet Union and the other East-bloc countries.

Conciliation also means relative freedom of worship. While in Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union, religious institutions remain under strict government supervision and surveillance, in Hungary, the separate religious communities run their own schools and services.

``We live the same lives as those who aren't Jews,'' claims Ilona Benoschofsky, director of the Budapest Jewish museum. ``It's possible at the same time to be a good Hungarian citizen and a good Jew.''

More and more young Hungarian Jews are taking the opportunity to return to their religion.

``My parents aren't religious,'' explains 16-year old Anna Donath. ``I want to be more Jewish. I like the traditions.''

She explains that Jews of her parents' generation often want to escape from their Jewishness. They try to hide it. Younger Jews feel the need to recapture their identity and to find a spiritual outlook in an increasingly materialistic society.

``It's sometimes strange to live in the 20th century,'' says 17-year old Andrea Reinitz. ``To give it meaning, it's good to do what people have been doing for centuries.''

Seifert smiles when she talks about this renaissance of Judaism. For her, interested youth assure the future of the Jewish community. Despite the threats of anti-Semitism, she is confident that Jews in Hungary have a bright future.

Unlike Soviet Jews, many who have applied to leave that country, Seifert says the great majority of Hungarian Jews want to stay here. Immigration to Israel is permitted, but she says only about 10 a year decide to leave.

Andrea and Anna concur, saying in unison, ``Hungary is our home.''

One reason that Hungarian Jews feel little desire to leave is that contacts with Israel are allowed. Along with the Soviet Union and the rest of its allies, Hungary broke off diplomatic relations with the Jewish state after the 1967 ``six-day war.''

Still, Hungarian officials say some 60,000 Israelis visited Budapest last year. It is harder for Hungarians to visit Israel -- they must receive an invitation and obtain hard currency for spending money -- but many make the trip.

Contacts with other Jewish communities in the West also are strong. Seifert says she regularly travels abroad to meet with officials from the World Jewish Congress. She hopes that aid from world Jewry can help finish the costly restoration of the Dohany synagogue and to assure maintenance of the 1,000 or so Jewish cemeteries throughout Hungary.

Her visits in the West reaffirmed her conviction that Hungarian Jews remain safe. She says she was shocked to see rifle-toting policemen outside synagogues in Vienna and Paris, guarding against terrorist attacks. In Budapest, she explains such precautions are not necessary.

``When I was five years old, anti-Semitism was directed by the government,'' she says. ``Today, the government helps us.''

For this reason, she exudes optimism. ``Anti-Semitism exists here,'' she concludes. ``But compared to the past, we enjoy a very, very happy situation.''