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In Budapest, a Thirst for Torah

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My trip to Hungary last week for a shabbaton proved to be a perfect prelude for Shavuos, for it demonstrated the never-ending power of Torah to attract and transform souls.

My wife and I were in Hungary at the invitation of Rabbi David Keleti and his organization Lativ (L’maan Tichyeh Yehudit B’Hungariya — For Jewish Revival in Hungary). I have written about Rabbi Keleti previously (“A Jew with a Mission,” February 2014). But the earlier piece was about him personally, and how a maggid shiur in an Israeli yeshivah discovered his life mission — one that would take him away from his home and family for most of the year — by thinking about what unique combination of knowledge he possesses.

Rabbi Shmuel Raskin of Budapest’s Keren-Or Chabad Israeli Center dances with Yosef Priel, the benefactor who underwrote the synagogue’s recent renovations, at a celebration marking the arrival of a new Torah scroll.

Rabbi Keleti combines decades of full-time Torah learning and teaching at the highest level with a native speaker’s knowledge of Hungarian. When he discovered that traveling to Hungary once a month to give shiurim would not be enough, and that to be effective he would have to live there and create a full-time beis medrash, Rav Elyashiv told him, “This is a matter of saving an entire tzibbur, a very great thing. It cannot be shirked.”

On this trip, however, I barely spent any time speaking to Rabbi Keleti. Unlike my recent four days in Berlin, where I was primarily a journalistic observer and spent my time talking with the movers and shakers in the community, I went to Hungary as one of two speakers (the other was Rabbi Binyomin Weiner, a dynamic young rebbi at Ohr Somayach), and I spent my time interacting with as many members of the Lativ community as possible.

I mention Berlin because Rabbi Keleti’s goal is to create in Budapest something resembling the Berlin community. Indeed, the twice-yearly Shabbos retreats are part of that effort. As Rabbi Keleti explained to me, one cannot uproot Jews from their previous lives and friends without providing them a community to replace their former one. One of his proudest achievements is the 19 weddings made through Lativ, including three this past winter.

The obstacles to community building, however, are formidable. The Berlin community was anchored from the start by a yeshivah funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and largely grew out of that yeshivah. Budapest is really two cities, Buda and Pest, located on opposite sides of the Danube, and there is no one neighborhood in which most of the Torah-observant Jews have gathered. One of the impressive young men I met over the weekend walks an hour each way on Shabbos to daven in the Orthodox shul, in what was once the Jewish Quarter. Nor are there enough religious Jews to sustain minyanim in the various neighborhoods where they live, despite Budapest’s large Jewish population.

Rabbi Keleti faces the same challenge as many successful kiruv rabbis around the world: The more one succeeds in attaching young Jews to Torah, the more likely that they will move to larger, more developed religious communities. Though there is a Chabad school in Budapest, run with a good deal of mesirus nefesh, most of the young couples with whom I spoke expressed the hope of raising their children in a thriving Torah community. And a number asked about aliyah.

13th-century castle

Whether aliyah would be a personal solution for those who asked is beyond my prophetic powers. At least at the initial stages of growth, there is much to be said for a beis medrash where everyone speaks your language and knows you personally, and where it is possible to create a learning program specifically catering to one’s needs and level. That will not happen anywhere else.

On the other hand, the children would gain from a much richer Torah curriculum, as long as the transition does not prove overwhelming. But even here something would be lost as well. At the Lag B’omer bonfire I noticed one young boy with long peyos. I asked his father whether his son’s distinctively Jewish look doesn’t create some safety concerns when he travels on public transportation. The father did not answer directly about his own concerns, but he told me that his son would like to wear his peyos even longer, and is very proud that everyone should see that he is a frum Jewish boy.

Suddenly, the penny dropped on something that puzzled me on my recent trip to Berlin and in Hungary as well: Why are all the children so becheint? The answer I decided is that they are all conscious of themselves as representatives of Torah. They are not just dressing and behaving like all the other kids in their neighborhood, as would be the case in the Israeli chareidi community. They stand out from almost everyone around them and are proud of it. And that idealism gives them a special chein.

WHAT STOOD OUT MOST at the shabbaton was the extremely high quality of those present. Rabbi Keleti offers only Torah learning. That is the only thing that works in Hungary, he told me. He is distinguished looking and dignified, and obviously commands great respect from his talmidim, but he eschews any razzmatazz.

As a consequence of his focus on Torah learning, he has attracted talmidim of a high intellectual level, who ask real questions and are seeking straight answers. We spent one meal with a math professor, who met his wife in a special school for math prodigies many years earlier. He will be spending a sabbatical year at Bar-Ilan University next year, and the couple’s four sons will be registered in religious schools.

On Friday, we toured a 13th-century castle after which the semi-rural region in which we spent Shabbos takes its name: Shimon’s Tower. There we heard a lecture on the history of the castle from a young woman, her hair completely covered, who had written a paper on that particular castle, for her master’s program in art history. She and her husband are now discussing whether she should go ahead with plans for a PhD or make aliyah with their young daughter.

Over the entire four days, we were approached repeatedly by earnest young people with questions both on Torah topics and frum life. At Shalosh Seudos, three members of the kehillah spoke — a young newlywed woman just back from Jerusalem, where her then-fiance studied at Ohr Somayach and she at Neve Yerushalayim; another young man just short of completing his PhD in math, who is currently studying at Ohr Somayach and is scheduled to start at the Berlin Rabbinerseminar next year; and the wife of one of the kolleleit in Rabbi Keleti’s beis medrash.

I did not understand one word. But in some ways, that made their talks even more fascinating; I was transfixed by the passion with which each of them spoke. (Subsequently, each sent me excellent English summaries of what he or she had said.) The first young woman studied special education, and has wrestled with the Torah’s prohibition on Kohanim who are baalei mumim serving in the Beis Hamikdash. Her talk was devoted to showing that the prohibition had nothing to do with contempt for those with disabilities.

The future rabbinical student addressed the Torah’s use of anthropomorphisms when referring to Hashem, and the consequent danger that people will come to believe that Hashem is corporeal. He cited Rav Avigdor Miller’s resolution of the problem: Even greater than the danger of errors in hilchos deios is that Jews will be incapable of forming an emotional attachment to Hashem. And the final speaker spoke with fervor of the need of all those in a community such as theirs not to repeat the tragedy that befell the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who were insufficiently attentive to the different approaches of their colleagues or appreciative of that which each could offer.

While, as mentioned, many of those present are at least contemplating leaving Hungary, it was davka the talmidei chachamim, who at one level would benefit most from a vibrant learning community, who are most committed to remaining. Rabbi Keleti is the child of Holocaust survivors. His father lost a wife and three children, and only married again at 47. Rabbi Keleti explains to me that leaving those who are thirsting for Torah behind in Hungary would be for him tantamount to being able to stop the trains to Auschwitz and not doing so. (Intermarriage is rampant in Hungary, and few of those at the shabbaton had two Jewish parents.)

Rabbi Keleti has imbued his closest talmidim with that same commitment. Rabbi Shmuel Yehoshua Domen first went to Israel in the midst of his studies at Budapest’s world-famous music conservatory for a one-month visit and ended up remaining eight years learning in yeshivah and kollel. But he and his Hungarian-born wife, whom he met in Israel, have returned to teach Torah. Similarly, Binyamin Zeev, the future rabbinical student, expects to serve as a rabbi in Hungary.

Whether a fully functioning Orthodox community will form in Budapest remains an open question. But at least the 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remaining there can count on being able to learn Torah at a deep level if they so choose.

By: Yonason Rosenblum
(Originally published in Mishpacha magazine)

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