Another First for Post Communist Hungary


January 8, 2003

“As a native of Budapest and a survivor of the Holocaust, the rejuvenation of the Hungarian Jewish community and other Jewish communities throughout Central Europe following the decimation the Jewish community suffered under Nazi Germany, is one of the most deeply gratifying developments I can imagine.”

These sentiments, expressed by Congressman Tom Lantos of California, were shared by many in the audience, eyewitnesses to the first Orthodox rabbinical ordination to take place in this central European country since the pre-war era, when Hungary was a thriving center of Jewish learning.

The event, laden with historic significance, drew the attention of major political figures in Hungary and the U.S. Sixty years after its near-annihilation, Hungarian Jewry is finally on the rebound, and the ordination this week, of Rabbi Shlomo Koves, a native of Budapest, gave evidence of an impressive revival here. Hundreds converged at the Shas Chevra Lubavitch Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Budapest, where the former Israeli Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eilyahu led the ceremony in conjunction with Rabbi Yehuda Yeruslavsky, Director of Beis Din Rabonei Chabad in Israel and Budapest’s Chabad Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, as Hungarian President Dr. Ferenc Madl, and Budapest’s Mayor Gabor Demzky, looked on.

Rabbi Oberlander, himself the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, noted that the event marked a turning point for Hungary’s Jewish population of 100,000. “The tide is finally turning,” says Rabbi Oberlander, “and a new generation of Jews is expressing interest in traditional, authentic Judaism,” he says, referring to the newly ordained rabbi.

Born into a family that had been assimilated for generations, except for a long line of distinguished rabbis on his maternal grandmother’s side, Koves’s interest in Judaism was self-motivated, and led him to undergo a circumcision procedure in a local hospital at age 12. But without spiritual guidance, Koves didn’t know what the next step should be. After he met up with Chabad several months later, Shlomo became a regular at Chabad, and was soon affectionately dubbed “the Oberlander’s eldest son.” After studying at Chabad’s yeshiva here, Koves continued his studies in Pittsburgh, New York, Paris, and most recently Israel where he was ordained as a mohel and sofer (scribe).

Founded in 1989, Lubavitch of Hungary came onto the scene at a time when traditional Judaism was reserved for the elderly as their children and grandchildren, haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust and communism, shied away from Jewish association. In the years since, the Oberlanders have succeeded to draw the young generation’s interest in Jewish education and communal life. Today, some 60 children are enrolled in the local Or Avner schools; with growing interest in the Pesti Jesiva, a center for advanced Judaic studies, and an open Jewish University scheduled to commence this February, Jewish education is once again on the rise in Hungary. Chabad’s synagogue attracts a daily minyan and some 19,000 families receive a periodical and monthly journal, both published at the Lubavitch publishing house in Hungary.

A gala dinner following the ceremony at the Budapest Marriot Hotel, celebrated 13 years of Chabad in Hungary. Hungary’s Minister of Education, Dr. Balint Maygar, addressed the guests, and spoke with pride of this event, alluding to his own Jewish identity and of his mother as a holocaust survivor. But it was the President’s brevity at the ceremony that spoke to the magnitude of the event: "I feel that I cannot add anything to this special event. I would feel honored just being able to take part in it." And so he did, for more than an hour and a half, a keen observer to the triumph of Judaism and the Jewish spirit.

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