A religious reawakening Orthodox rabbinical students are studying in Hungary for the first time since 1956

December 13, 1998|By Sam Greene

BUDAPEST, Hungary - Rabbi Baruch Oberlander arrived in Budapest in the stifling heat of August 1989. For Oberlander, newly ordained, newly wed, loosed from his tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, it was an uncertain season.

"I was a little lost," he said. "My father used to tell very nostalgic stories about Hungary and about what Judaism was here. But that Judaism had vanished. Or it survived but not in Hungary. You could find it in Brooklyn or in Australia or in Israel but not in Hungary. The people who were really religious left Hungary."

Among those who fled was Rabbi Nisan Kremer, who left amid Hungary's failed 1956 revolt and came to the United States. Oberlander learned his family's history from his father; he learned his country's history from Kremer.

After getting married that spring, Oberlander - the son of immigrant Holocaust survivors - traveled to Milan to visit his wife's parents. There, he learned that Hungary's Orthodox community - still struggling under the last days of communism - was looking for rabbis to help it rebuild. The last yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish theological seminary, had closed in 1956 when the last few rabbinical students fled in the tumult of revolution.

Specifically, the Hungarian community that took Oberlander in was looking for a Lubavitcher rabbi, one of a small but vibrant group of Jewish missionaries who leave their homes in Brooklyn or Israel to help reclaim "lost Jews," primarily in former communist countries. Having never been to the country that sent his parents to the camps in Poland, he and his wife decided to go.

As Jews everywhere commemorate the miraculous rekindling of nearly three millenniums ago, Oberlander will celebrate Hanukkah with Hungary's first Orthodox rabbinical students in 42 years. The group includes 14 Americans.

In the Hanukkah story, the conquering Syrian-Greeks forcibly assimilated Jews and forbade the study of the Torah, much as the communists did. In the end, the Syrian-Greeks resorted to violence, ransacking the Temple in Jerusalem. But, with a little help from above - so the story goes - the people and their traditions prevailed.

The Nazis tried to exterminate Hungarian Judaism physically. The communists tried to exterminate Hungarian Judaism spiritually. Now, with only a fraction of the former Jewish population left and little religious education to speak of, both are on the verge of succeeding. This, Oberlander says, is what he's trying to prevent. The new yeshiva, then, is something of a counter-offensive.

Oberlander is 32 but, in many ways, looks younger. He smiles almost constantly, and his cheeks shine beneath a wild, black beard that seems to want to be on the face of an older man. Stout and with thinning hair, he has the bearing of a more senior rabbi but the energy of a student, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, ready to work.

He set out upon arrival to undo everything that had been done since his father left. Unlike Russia, where the communists shut down everything Jewish, Hungary had left open the butcher shops, the bakeries, the restaurants and even the synagogues. It had shut only the schools, including all but the last yeshiva, which closed by itself.

"These were smart communists," Oberlander said. "They knew that if you closed the schools, the rest become irrelevant."

So he has been teaching twice-weekly classes on the Talmud - the collection of Jewish law and commentaries beginning in the second century - almost nonstop since he arrived in August 1989. In 1990, he began lecturing on Jewish law at Budapest University's law school. The pre-school and elementary school that the community runs has grown to 50 pupils.

The government had also stopped the printing of prayer books. Of the few that can be found in the synagogues, almost all were printed before World War I. Many are in German, with psalms of praise to the last Austro-Hungarian emperor.

With the help of others in the community, Oberlander has published new prayer books in Hebrew and Hungarian, as well as Hungarian translations of more popular books, such as Herman Wouk's "This is My God." He also edits two monthly newsletters that have national circulation.

"My goal is that everybody should know what Judaism is all about," he said. "The biggest problem with Judaism today is ignorance, people not knowing what Judaism is about. Here you have a lot of kids going into these sects and cults. A lot of them are Jewish kids. A student of mine, who is now in yeshiva in New York, his older sister is in the Hare Krishnas. The family talked to me, and I went and talked to her. She said she liked the Krishnas because they gave her community and a structure. I said, 'What community, what structure?' I explained to her what Judaism is all about, and she said, 'Rabbi, if you had come five years earlier, I probably would be a religious Jew today.'"

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