In Budapest, Exploring the City’s Jewish Life with JDC Entwine

Dan Alpert and Gregory Feldman take us through Jewish Budapest — and how JDC helps keep the community vibrant and dynamic.

By Dan Alpert & Gregory Feldman - JDC Entwine Insider Trip Participant & JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow; Budapest, Hungary | February 21, 2024

Gregory Feldman (top row, second from right) with members of the JDC Entwine Insider Trip to Hungary, visiting the JDC-supported Bálint Ház Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Budapest.

Last Chanukah, Dan Alpert — a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow in Budapest — helped welcome a group of young Jews to the Hungarian capital. All of them had come from San Diego as part of a JDC Entwine Insider Trip, and for a week, they explored Budapest’s vibrant Jewish life. In this co-written reflection, Alpert teams up with Greg Feldman — an Insider Trip participant — to think about what made this experience so enriching. 

Dan Alpert (left) and Feldman, in Budapest.

Adam Sandler sings in his famous number, “The Chanukah Song”: “Chanukah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.” While he may have been describing this great Jewish holiday, he might as well have been describing the 2023 JDC Entwine Insider Trip to Budapest with the Jewish Federation of San Diego, which happened over the Festival of Lights — it was indeed a week of fun, joy, learning, and light.

JDC Entwine Insider Trips offer unique learning opportunities to visit a community where JDC operates and the chance to meet with locals to better understand Jewish life in another part of the world. As Jews around the world celebrated Chanukah, a group of young adults from the Jewish community of San Diego went on an Insider Trip of their own –– a 6,261-mile journey to Budapest to learn about the remarkable community that has seen its flame reignited over the past 30 years. The trip was supported by the Jewish Federation of San Diego in an effort to inspire global connection.

JDC has been supporting Hungarian Jewish life for decades, though it was compelled to leave the country during the height of Soviet influence. In the 1980s, JDC was one of the first Jewish organizations allowed to officially resume work in the country. With a rich history of involvement and partnership with the local Jewish community, JDC has supported many of its current leaders.

During the Insider Trip, we had the chance to meet Mircea Cernov, JDC’s Country Director in Hungary, and some of these community leaders. From individuals advocating for more inclusive policies for people with disabilities to leaders who have helped shape the future of Jewish life — so many people we encountered have been empowered by JDC programs. 

The group visited JCC Budapest which was originally established in 1994 by JDC. Now, an independent organization that continues to receive JDC support and consulting, JCC Budapest provides services and programs for every step of one’s life journey. At the JCC, the group met with JCC Budapest Director Marcell Kenesei. Marcell has been leading the JCC for the past three years, yet found his place with JDC many years ago when he attended different JDC-supported training programs. Marcell also attended Camp Szarvas — the JDC-Lauder international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary — and now develops additional Jewish camping experiences of his own through his work at the JCC.

Feldman (third from left) visiting the Buda Castle with members of the JDC Entwine Insider Trip.

Szarvas was another organization our group had the chance to meet with during the trip. Learning about the impression that the camp leaves on Jewish youth from around Central and Eastern Europe –– and across the world –– was particularly inspiring. Even more so, learning about its efforts to support Jews in Ukraine through Szarvas Mriya, a respite camp for Ukraine’s Jews hosted at Szarvas, was moving. It’s clear that the camp is adding to the flame of Jewish life and ensuring a strong future ahead.

In addition, our group met with leaders at JDC’s Mozaik Hub, a social enterprise incubator located in the building of the Rumbach Synagogue. At the Hub, participants learned from leaders such as Daniel Csango, who leads advocacy efforts to ensure more freedom for persons with disabilities in Hungary — a touching experience and one that helps shine the light on issues that JDC continues to address within today’s Hungarian culture and society. 

Beyond visiting sites impacted by the work of JDC, the group also saw the great sites of Budapest. The group visited the historical Buda castle, the beautiful Royal Palace of Gödöllő, and had a wonderful day exploring neighboring towns on the Danube River.  

With snow on the ground, the lights of the Chanukah candles reflected during each night of celebration. On the first night, our group joined the local BBYO chapter as they hosted a community-wide candle lighting to kickoff Chanukah celebrations, enabling us to feel part of the Budapest Jewish community. 

While these are just a few of the highlights of the trip, our group’s well-rounded experience learning about Jewish life in this country showcased a new flame that is growing — the friendship between Jewish communities in San Diego and Budapest. 

What a unique experience — Jews over 6,000 miles apart celebrating a holiday that reminds us of the light we each play in each other’s life. Jews in Hungary and San Diego, while physically distant, maintain many similarities. Whether it’s the summer camps we attend, the programs at our JCCs, or the songs we sing on Shabbat — we have so much in common.

From individuals advocating for more inclusive policies for people with disabilities to leaders who have helped shape the future of Jewish life –– so many people we encountered have been empowered by JDC programs.

Those similarities help keep the light shining on this new friendship between two Jewish communities. It is a light that continues to shine, just like the flame of dedication and hope that grows in Hungarian Jewish life. It is this excitement that continues to be supported by JDC in communities around the world. 

In Hungary, San Diego, and around the world, Jewish families lit their Chanukah candles and celebrated the holiday. Today, we keep those flames alive and are energized by the future of Jewish life in Budapest. Adam Sandler may have been singing about Chanukah, but his lyrics also convey the magic of Jewish life in Hungary — it is truly something special. 

Dan Alpert graduated in 2021 from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where he received a Bachelor of Science in marketing and minors in Jewish Studies and International Development and Conflict Management. He then went to work in the Maryland General Assembly focused on labor and transportation policy for a State Delegate.A second-year JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Budapest, Hungary, Alpert now serves as a Global Engagements Coordinator at JCC Budapest.

Gregory Feldman is a young Jewish professional and graduate of the University of Southern California.  He is a co-owner of a hospitality textile business that designs and supplies decorative products to hotels, restaurants, cruise ships, and casinos worldwide.  Gregory is an active member of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego and is involved in various local Jewish organizations and activities.

JDC Entwine is grateful to the generous supporters of the Jewish Service Corps Fellowship; Pears Foundation, Sandler Family, Soref Foundation, the W and E Kahane Family Foundation, William Donner, and the Wolf family.

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