For Hungary’s Jews, an “Open Door”

October 7, 2014


Selfies with the rabbi. A bounce castle. An open-air Jewish market.

These were just a few of the dozens of activities on the docket at the Balint JCC in Budapest, Hungary’s annual Open Doors Festival — a chance for the main community institution of the city’s approximately 100,000 Jews to introduce itself to its neighbors.

“This is our annual season-opening street festival that starts our program of activities, and gives a taste of what we do for different age groups,” said Zoya Shvartzman, JDC’s director of strategic partnership in Hungary. “We call it the Open Doors Festival to show our pluralism, our openness, and our heartfelt welcome to anyone and everyone.”

This year’s celebration was especially significant as the Balint JCC is celebrating its 20th birthday; to mark the occasion, this year’s festival had a theme of “The Hungarian Jewish Community in the 25 Years Since the Fall of the Iron Curtain.”

In the years since communism ended in Hungary, JDC has worked against great odds to revitalize Jewish life in the country by connecting those who were cut off from Jewish traditions and culture for decades to innovative learning opportunities like Balint JCC’s slate of programming and Judafest, another street festival that draws thousands and has spawned a popular offshoot in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Hungary is also home to Szarvas, the pioneering Jewish summer camp about 100 miles from Budapest jointly operated by JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Now celebrating its 25th year, the camp welcomes about 1,300 Jewish children from 25 countries for an immersive Jewish experience that has paid staggering dividends in terms of generating transformational leaders throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union.

“It is important to note the context where this is all happening: a country and region where Jewish life lay dormant for decades, and was nearly obliterated after the Holocaust and communist oppression,” Shvartzman said. “Today, many are discovering their Jewish roots and are seeking ways to connect with their heritage. Since most Jews in Hungary are not religious, the JCC offers another alternative of connecting and learning about Jewish traditions.”

The more than 800 visitors to this year’s Open Doors Festival arrived to a boulevard decorated with doors and mezuzot from previous festivals’ art competition.

While JCC employees provided some of the crowd with an overview of the facility’s fitness courses, cultural activities, and children’s programs, other attendees participated in a variety of lectures and discussions: the first in a three-part series about Jewish humor; a discussion about the last quarter-century of Jewish life in Hungary; a talk on the birth of the Balint JCC; and an arts program moderated by the head of the city’s innovative Golem professional Jewish theater.

The stage outside hosted capoeira, krav maga, and salsa demonstration, as well as a performance by a Jewish dance group and a birthday concert for the JCC featuring a trio of Jewish stars that ended with a rousing rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”

The Open Doors Festival also featured KidBrunch, a children’s program focusing on Jewish heroes, and a walking tour of Budapest’s Jewish neighborhoods.

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