Today is the day after Yom Kippur, so I have some time to sit down and reflect on my holiday experience thus far. I came to Hungary a few weeks before the chagim on purpose, with the hopes of settling in a bit before jumping into the craziness of the holidays. The good news: the plan worked. The bad news: the chagim continue to destabilize any sense of routine/structure in my personal and professional life here, but I guess that's true wherever you are.
Before Rosh Hashanah, I had already spent a few Shabbatot in Hungary, and had made some contacts in the Jewish community. For the first night, I asked Zsofí, a good friend from the BBYO team, her plans, and she told me I was welcome to join her and a few friends at a Canadian woman's home. Before dinner, we went to a different Neolog shul across town. It was a really nice sanctuary with a Chabad hazzan. This sanctuary had a mechitzah (unlike most Neolog setups that simply have separate seating with no separation). The whole experience felt very reminiscent of an American Modern Orthodox shul. I think the difference is that this crowd is presumably not at all observant in their private lives.
Zsofí is a part of a Hungarian cohort of a pan-European Jewish leadership and professional development program called MiNYanim. MiNYanim hopes to create inspired leadership teams in various European countries who can help mobilize the millennial crowds into finding different types of engagement within their local Jewish communities. Her group, along with its leader, Tomi Buchler, were invited to dinner by a Jewish Canadian woman named Janet who enjoys being active in the local Jewish community. Janet's husband is Hungarian, and she spent a number of years going back and forth between Toronto and Budapest, but is now officially a resident here. I was incredibly grateful to have an invite to this dinner, because it included interesting young Jews, as well as some of Janet's expat friends. The dinner conversations were carried out in English, and I absolutely loved getting to know such an interesting crowd while sitting down for a traditional Rosh Hashanah seudah (dinner). Zsofí told Janet that I keep kosher (again, besides the Orthodox/Chabad community, it is very very rare for Jews to buy kosher meat), and Janet prepared kosher soup and chicken in separate, strictly kosher dishes. I couldn't believe she made such an accommodation for me, and I told her how grateful I was.
Tomi (the MiNYanim organizer/leader) and I discussed the Jewish scene here. He said he thinks that there really is space for serious progressive Judaism here (similar to Conservative in America), but the reason Neolog remains the predominant stream of Judaism is because the older generations, who of course merit respect and reverence in the community, don't want to see an evolution of Judaism. People may choose to practice or not practice, but they don't want to see what they see as the essence of Judaism change. To Tomi and me, that actually makes a ton of sense. Perhaps it means that a future emergence of progressive Judaism may come. If a knowledgeable and visionary progressive leader comes to the community, I'm sure it can happen. I should add that Rabbi Tomi's neolog shul (the one where I am based out of for BBYO and most frequently attend) does an incredible job of welcoming the older and younger generations, and doing his best to walk the lines of how to keep Judaism relevant in his shul while remaining true to tradition. The results of that project manifest differently here than in the US because the Neolog and Conservative paradigms are different, but they emerge from a similar struggle taking place in different circumstances.
My second night dinner was with Gabor Balasz, who hosted me for my first Shabbat dinner in Budapest and is my contact at the Lauder school where I may begin working in some capacity soon. The other guests were all lovely and interesting people, included a former student of Gabor's who is training to compete on Hungary's Olympic karate team, a British man who (among other things) works with celebrities to brand personal alcoholic beverage products, an anthropology professor who was born in Romania and came to Hungary originally for her PhD, and a Hungarian woman who works in architecture and went to Illinois on a scholarship and helped design new Yankee Stadium during her prolonged stay in the US. The conversation revolved around exploring our many different personal stories, and eventually led into the Romanian/Hungarian contingent sharing stories about growing up during Communism. For the Hungarians, the country had become much more open by the time they were growing up, but the Romanian woman explained the strict and stringent image of Communism that we hear about continued until the fall of the USSR. Her childhood had many of the staples of the oppressive Communist experience. She says she still buys many bottles of shampoo at a time, because there were really no cosmetic or hygiene products available during her youth. She said many people who grew up with strict Communism have that same tendency to buy products en masse. Dairy products were also forbidden, but a shepherd would descend from the mountains once a week to illegally sell her family milk.
The day before Kol Nidre, my roommate Sam arrived!!! Sam went to IU and knew many of my friends there, and is also a JDC Fellow here working with JDC's Junction program, which is pan-European young Jewish engagement program. It's so nice having her here and knowing that no days will pass without having someone to talk to. When you live in a new country, you don't take that for granted. We made dinner together before the fast, consisting of Kosher chicken and roasted veggies, all covered in paprika (my first time cooking with this staple of Hungarian cuisine).
Kol Nidre and First night Rosh Hashanah are THE big nights. We arrived at synagogue 15 minutes past the advertised start time, and the building was literally overflowing. We found seats in the balcony (where I had never sat prior), and we didn't have machzors. Many of the attendants were enjoying the social scene, but I did my best to try and focus and appreciate being in such a unique service.
On Yom Kippur morning, I arrived at shul at 8:30 and stayed until the fast ended minutes before 7:00. They did not have a break. They prolonged the service by having many more prayers read aloud than I'm used to, as well as honoring each of the shul's many donors with an aliyah to the Torah. It was easily the longest Torah service of my life, with what must have been 20-30 aliyot (and mi sheberach after each one).
The crowd started off quite small, but then the room was magically full for most of the Torah service and for Yizkor, and then emptied out immediately after. A decent crowd returned for the last hour of the fast. The shofar blow at the end was sounded by 5 different people, which gave it a powerful and melodic ring that I had never heard before. I mumbled to myself, "L'shana Ha-ba'ah B'Yerushalayim," which I once more have the privilege of knowing, God willing, to be true.