If you invest in ten people in one community and these ten people reach out another 100, you will soon reach 1,000 or more people.
by Abigail Pickus
Tamás (Tomi) Buchler is a 30-year-old Hungarian Jew who has been a leading force in what can only be described as a renaissance in Jewish life throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
Born and raised in Budapest, his story is “a bit different from the typical Jewish Hungarian narrative.”
“I was born a few years before the regime fell and I received a strong Jewish identity straight from the beginning,” he said, adding that only a “tiny minority of Hungarian Jews have grown up like him with a strong Jewish identity from their home.”
Buchler’s story is unique in another way, as well: all four of his grandparents survived the Holocaust, through ghettos, camps and forced labor. And his grandparents chose to raise their children – Buchler’s parents, who also grew up in Budapest – in the Jewish tradition, despite the fact that any “Zionist activity,” including studying Hebrew, or religious practices were risky.
“Most people of my grandparents generation in the 50s, when the communist dictatorship was very strong in Hungary, did not give their children a Jewish education,” he said.
In fact, many Jews who had survived the war either joined the communist party and did not tell their children they were Jewish, or they left Hungary all together.
As a result, very few Jewish traditions were kept and many Jews grew up extremely assimilated, often only finding out as adults about their Jewish heritage.
Buchler’s family was part of a very small minority. Case in point was his parents’ secret Orthodox wedding in the 1970s. The family also celebrated all major Jewish holidays and after the fall of communism, his parents sent him to a Jewish camp, Jewish youth organizations and the local Talmud Torah. Even the public school he and his brother attended had many Jewish students so most of his friends growing up were Jewish.
“When I look back I can say that I grew up in the Jewish bubble of Budapest,” he said.
At the age of 20, Buchler became a Birthright counselor, leading 40 Hungarian youths on their first trip to Israel. The way he tells it, on their very first day in Jerusalem, he put on his kippah and explained that they were about to visit the Kotel.
“Maybe 35 out of the 40 participants had no clue what the Kotel is,” he said. “They were really surprised. It turned out that most of them had no connection to the Jewish community whatsoever other than having a Jewish grandparent.”
It was then that a light bulb went off for Buchler. Understanding that nearly all the younger generation had no connection to Judaism or to the community, he began to wonder how to help connect them.
For his part, his personal connection to Jewish life continued to grow. He lived in Israel for a few years where he studied in the peace and conflict resolution program at the University of Haifa. He also studied at a rabbinical seminary in Budapest and his affiliations include being a PresenTense Global Fellow, a Rene Cassin Fellow and a member of the ROI Community.
Once Buchler returned to Budapest, where he received a master’s in law, he also began working for The Jewish Agency. It was then that he decided in earnest that his task was to reach that critical mass of Hungarian Jews who were just out of reach. While the Jewish population of Budapest is nearly 100,000, only a few thousand are active in the Jewish community, according to Buchler.
“That’s the big dilemma about all of the unaffiliated people. They are not connected so therefore they are invisible,” he said. “One of our goals was to make this target audience visible.”
Birthright alumni were initially the best way to spotlight those under the radar.
“My experience is after Birthright, no matter how cynical Jewish Hungarian young adults are, there is a magic there. They do want to connect. They are looking for connections with Judaism so we need to find opportunities to offer them.”
Working with Jewish Agency shaliach Eran Elbar, the two began coming up with different ideas to attract young Jews, everything from volunteering with refugees to a cooking club.
“We came out with plenty of bad ideas and had lots of failures along the way,” recalled Buchler, but the experience ultimately led him to the principle that continues to be his guide: “local problems need local solutions.”
“One of the things we learned after a few years of experimentation is that the best way to reach these people is to really empower them to think about their own ideas and their own projects,” he said. “On the other hand, how can you expect someone to come up with inspirational Jewish programs without any Jewish literacy or knowledge?”
But Buchler has figured out a way to make this possible.
It began as a pilot project in 2009 in Hungary with ten participants (thus the initial name, Minyan), and has since evolved into a thriving program called MiNYanim that has so far reached 220 young Jews in 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Israel. (The European countries include: Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, The Czech Republic, Russia, Belarus and Germany.)
The scope of MiNYanim includes a one-year intensive learning program where the participants study everything from Jewish literacy and Israel to fundraising – followed by the opportunity to receive seed grants to launch their own innovative Jewish projects. All the cohorts have the opportunity to come together a few times a year through ongoing international seminars.
What makes MiNYanim unique is that instead of the programs being planned and run by outsiders – such as funders or volunteers working in the communities – they are run by community members themselves.
Such a self-empowering and sustainable model is intentional – and one whose time has come, according to Buchler, who helped found MiNYanim and has been its director for the past two years.
A large part of its success hinges on the 18 young coordinators based in each community, nearly all of whom are graduates of MiNYanim. The fact that they chose to continue on as staff to help oversee and orchestrate the continuation of the project speaks to Buchler’s vision for empowered communities.
“Every year between 50-70 people graduate from the whole region,” said Buchler. “These graduates are a treasure in our hands. Having so many young Jewish entrepreneurs in our region is amazing and we can now connect them to each other.”
The underlying thread throughout MiNYanim is that it is up to the participants to help shape their Jewish future.
“Ultimately, we want [our cohorts] to understand and see that they can create their own communities. There is no authority who can tell them what is a Jewish community and how it should look,” said Buchler.
This can be challenging depending on the community.
In Hungary, for example, there are many Jewish educators, rabbis and Jewish institutions from across the denominational spectrum to teach the cohorts about Judaism from a pluralistic perspective.
But in Serbia, there is only one rabbi and one community, which is Orthodox, as well as Chabad.
“A big part of MiNYanim is Jewish pluralism and diversity and it’s hard to educate Jews about pluralism when there is one rabbi [representing only one stream],” said Buchler.
Once the participants graduate from the program, they are still connected through a host of alumni activities offered throughout the year. They can also apply for seed grants for Jewish entrepreneurial projects.
The 30-some projects in various stages of development include an iPhone app that enables people to photograph anti-Semitic graffiti in Hungary and Bulgaria and “clean” it up to transform it into street art and community events, and an online magazine about Jewish public life in Central Europe called Jewrnalism.
For Buchler, the fact that MiNYanim is growing is proof that it is filling a need.
“Throughout the years it is getting bigger and bigger. There is a demand in these communities for MiNYanim,” he said. “People continue to approach us and ask if they can have one in their community, like in Bucharest, which has proven to be one of the greatest cohorts we have.”
And he is convinced that its impact will continue to grow.
“It’s the multiplier effect. If you invest in ten people in one community and these ten people reach out another 100, you will soon reach 1,000 or more people. This is the effect we hope to reach.”
MiNYanim is a joint initiative of The Jewish Agency and the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest. It is supported by the UJA Federation of New York.