At JCC Budapest, Building a Proud and Open Jewish Life

This JCC director works tirelessly to create an inclusive space for LGBTQ+ Jews – and all people.

By Marcell Kenesei - Director, JCC Budapest-Bálint Ház | June 29, 2022

Cultivating a vibrant and inclusive Jewish life is all in a day's work for Marcell Kenesei, director JCC Budapest--Bálint Ház.

As director of the JCC Budapest-Bálint Ház, Marcell Kenesei lives at the very heart of Jewish Hungary — one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Spearheading innovative programs and initiatives, Marcell works tirelessly to build an open and inclusive Jewish home in the heart of Europe. As Pride Month comes to a close, Marcell reflects on his own Jewish journey, JCC Budapest, and why LGBTQ+ inclusion is a crucial part of building Jewish life. 

Since I was a child, it’s been my life’s mission to cultivate Jewish life in Hungary. 

And in a sense, the story of Jewish Hungary is also my story — over the last three decades, we’ve grown up together, becoming more open, more authentic, and more proud. 

It wasn’t always easy to be openly Jewish here. I was born in Budapest in the 1980s, right before the fall of communism and, like many people my age, I had no knowledge of my Jewish roots. For my parents, and my parents’ parents, their Jewishness was kept quiet. 

All of that changed when I was admitted to the Lauder Javne Community School in Budapest. While there, I got connected to a larger Jewish community, history, and set of traditions. I discovered that I was Jewish, and not only accepted this part of my identity, but openly embraced it. 

Marcell (right) at Judafest, the biggest Jewish community festival in Hungary.

Over time, Jewish life became my entire life. At home, I convinced my family to celebrate Pesach, Chanukah, and other Jewish holidays. Outside of school, I just couldn’t stop doing Jewish things: I became a madrich (counselor) at Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international summer camp in Hungary and threw myself into Jewish programs at the JCC. 

At JCC Budapest, I could always find vibrant and open Jewish life. Under the leadership of Zsuzsa Fritz, the former director, JCC Budapest became a safe space for all Jews — a gateway for people who were discovering their Jewish identity. People like me. 

That’s why becoming the director of JCC Budapest was a culminating moment in my Jewish journey — when all the pieces of my story came together. I was now leading one of the very organizations that had inspired me to join the Jewish world. Everything came full-circle: I was joining Zsuzsa’s team, the very same person who had once been my Judaism teacher, and who had inspired me to take a more active role in Jewish life. 

Now, as director of JCC Budapest, I help represent one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities, with more than 100,000 Jews living in Hungary, most of them concentrated in Budapest. And, as one of the largest communities, we’re also diverse. 

JCC Budapest strives to create an accepting, caring community where Jewish life is open, authentic, and relevant to people’s everyday lives. LGBTQ+ inclusion is a key part of our larger work, engaging people both within and outside the Jewish world: people with disabilities, the elderly, women, and people of all faiths. 

Throughout history, Jews have been persecuted in so many ways: We know firsthand what it means to be excluded. That’s why we have to do the opposite — be more inclusive, inclusive of people with different views, different ethnicities, different cultures. During Pride Month, and year-round, LGBTQ+ inclusion is just one way that we live our Jewish values. 

Marcell and his dog, Alfonz, attend a JCC Budapest Havdala service.

This issue is deeply personal. I was 23 when I fully accepted my LGBTQ+ identity. And once I told my friends and community, they embraced me for who I was. This process made me realize that Jewish Hungary is large enough for everyone — no matter your identity. 

JCC Budapest is a major reason why Jewish Hungary is so welcoming. What attracted me most to the JCC, its most unique quality, is its pluralistic view of community … the sense that, no matter who you are, you are welcome here.

This, of course, includes those who identify as LGBTQ+. And for a long time, JCC Budapest has been on the cutting-edge of LGBTQ+ inclusion, hosting LGBTQ+-friendly services, sponsoring LGBTQ+ programs, and creating a safe space for everyone. This year, we are preparing a series of lectures and discussions about LGBTQ+ issues and will attend the Pride march, encouraging our Jewish allies to march.  

I am proud to have created a safe space for the younger generation, a place for those who may feel like they don’t have a place in the Jewish world.  Engaging young people is crucial — they bring a fresh perspective, new ideas. They keep Jewish life vibrant. And ultimately, they will be our future leaders. 

I’m also proud to say that I’m the first openly gay Jewish leader in Hungary, and perhaps in Central and Eastern Europe. In this part of the world, that means something. It certainly means something to the younger generation here in Hungary, who can look to me as a positive example of a gay Jewish leader. This was not the case when I was a teen, and it’s one of the reasons why I came out relatively late. So, the world changes and I’m the perfect example of that change.

I myself am the product of a 30+-year investment made by JDC — an investment in Jewish schools, camps, trainings, and leadership initiatives. JDC didn’t just look into the past; they embraced the future of Jewish Europe. And it’s partly because of their efforts that I can be the proud, open Jewish leader I am today. 

JDC didn’t just look into the past; they embraced the future. That’s partly why I can be the proud, open Jewish leader I am today.

I want JCC Budapest to continue to be a driving force for Jewish life in Hungary, a place where everyone can participate in seminars, programs, street festivals. A place where we bring thousands of years of Jewish values into the present — values encompassing everything from tikkun olam to kashrut

This Pride Month, I am more confident than ever that we will continue to build an inclusive community — for LGBTQ+ people and for all people. 

Marcell Kenesei is the director of JCC Budapest-Bálint Ház. Founded by JDC in 1994, JCC Budapest has been a crucial part of European Jewish life for nearly three decades, and continues to receive support from JDC.

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