The Heartbeat of Hungary’s Jewish Community: Reflecting On the Magic and Vitality of JCC Budapest

Jewish Hungary is alive and thriving, and Dan Alpert is excited to help build its future.

By Dan Alpert - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow; Budapest, Hungary | October 10, 2023

Dan Alpert (far left) celebrates Purim with colleagues at the JDC-supported Bálint Ház Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Budapest.

JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow Dan Alpert arrived in Hungary last year with a deep desire to learn about European Jewish life. During his placement at the JDC-supported Bálint Ház Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Budapest, Alpert was exposed to the vibrancy of the city’s Jewish past and present. Now, he’s chosen to return to JCC Budapest for another year. In this reflection, he explains why there’s nowhere he’d rather be. 

Alpert (right) with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman at a JCC Budapest event.

The fasten seat belt sign is on. We are on the runway. The pilot puts the plane in full throttle, and we lift off. 

I’m on my way back to the United States to meet with community partners in New York and California about the work of the JDC-supported Bálint Ház Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Budapest. 

For the past year, I have been serving as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow in Budapest, Hungary, where I work with JCC Budapest — an incredible institution that was founded by JDC in 1994 with the help of many supporters around the world. 

I started as a JSC fellow in the fall of 2022, and as my fellowship neared its conclusion in the summer of 2023, I had the opportunity to stay for another year. Hesitant at first, I thought about the incredible community I’d grown to know throughout the past several months. 

With roughly 100,000 – 200,000 Jews, the Budapest Jewish community is diverse, large, and has pockets of engagement everywhere you turn. As I thought about returning, I remembered my days with JCC Budapest, the BBYO chapter, the local office of the World Jewish Congress, and countless events with the greater Jewish community — it really is a special place to live and work. 

I also thought about the year that I had spent as a JSC fellow where I had the chance to represent JDC in Moldova and Poland and while visiting the Mriya Ukrainian family camp at Szarvas. I deeply cherish the opportunity to be part of an incredible organization making a global impact at the local level.

Not only that, but the JCC has grown significantly over the past two years, doubling its budget and increasing its membership ranks by more than 25 percent. Today, more than 55,000 individuals engage with the JCC annually and, most importantly, the JCC Budapest is positioned to make an even greater impact going forward. 

That’s why I knew it was the right move to join the JCC team for another year. So, here I am, back in Hungary with the incredible JCC Budapest team leading our global partnerships and United States donor engagement efforts. 

People often ask me, “Why return?” To be frank, the answer remains right in front of us.

Hungary’s Jewish community has lived there for centuries, moving through periods of certainty and unpredictability. During the Holocaust, roughly 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers as the war came to an end. Jews continued to keep their practices in hiding throughout years of religious suppression in the decades that followed the end of World War II. 

Alpert (far right) during a staff retreat with his JCC Budapest colleagues.

It’s common to hear stories of individuals having Jewish “coming out” stories, where they learn they’re Jewish later in life or quietly reveal to their friends that they’re Jewish. 

One of these people is Marcell Kenesei — the executive director of JCC Budapest, who found out he was Jewish when he was 13 years old. Though he didn’t know beforehand, while he was attending a Jewish school he began to put the pieces together and eventually asked his parents if he was Jewish. They said yes, but not much more. From there on, Marcell explored his Jewish roots, a journey that led him to become a leader in the Jewish community and the JCC’s executive director. 

When we think about Jewishness in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s important to remember that Jewish life still exists and is still thriving, as we also remember the history that has led us here.

While building several strong partnerships in the United States, it has been clear that what connects us the most are our everlasting strong Jewish values. In the Torah, it is stated that we are all B’tzelem Elohim — created in the image of God. We share commonalities that stretch beyond culture, country, and community. We are truly interconnected.

When we work with our overseas partners — including JDC, which has been by the JCC’s side since the beginning — we have the chance to learn deeply from one another and share ideas on supporting each other’s community. We also have the chance to share the story of Jewish life in Hungary — a story of persecution and triumph, a story of freedom, and a story that is continuing to write itself a new chapter each and every day. 

The story of Jewish life in Hungary is one of persecution and triumph, a story of freedom, and a story that writes a new chapter each and every day.

For nearly 30 years, the tagline of JCC Budapest has been “rebuilding Jewish life.” Today, it’s clear that Jewish Hungary is as strong as ever, and now the community is reimagining the future of its Jewish people together. The community is looking ahead to what is next, seeing how each organization can play a role in taking the next step forward, and looking to forge a new era of Jewish freedom and prosperity in the region. 

In Hungarian, there is a word — szívdobogás — which simply means “heartbeat.” The heartbeat of Hungary’s Jewish community continues to sound. It beats with hope, vision, and perseverance. It beats knowing that the next moment in our history will be even brighter. Right now, my heart is beating with excitement as I sit on the plane ready to take off to our next partner community, while knowing that another lift-off is happening over 4,000 miles away.

The fasten seat belt sign is on. We are on the runway. Marcell and his team put the JCC in full throttle and we lift off: JCC Budapest is reaching new heights. 

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.

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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