An Alternative Cultural and Community Center Reopens in Budapest

By Abigail Pickus

On Simchat Torah, Budapest’s answer to a new alternative Jewish community center will open its doors with a new name and a new location.

Aurora, as it will be called, will be located on Aurora street in Budapest’s 8th district, a mere district away from its old home in the former Jewish quarter.

A cultural and community center in one, Aurora will be home to a whole continuum of Jewish life – offering everything from religious programs and a place to pray and celebrate holidays, cultural events, such as music, film and art, and last but certainly not least, a hub for social activism.

“We are trying to offer as many options as we are able to attract people,” said Adam Schonberger, who is heading up the center as part of his role as the executive director of the Conservative (masorti) youth group Marom Budapest.

This unique cultural center has risen in response to a unique Jewish population living in the shadows of both the Holocaust and communism. Although the Jewish population in Budapest is one of the largest in Europe – estimated between 80-120,000 – only a small percentage identify or connect with the organized Jewish community.

“In Hungary, so many young Jews have grown up without any formal Jewish education. They have big empty spaces in their identity book. They don’t know and haven’t found the answers to what it means to be Jewish. Instead, we all have lot of questions,” said the 34-year-old Schonberger. “That is why it is so important to reconnect these people not only to their own heritage but also something else: to help them find and be a part of community.”

The roots of this cultural center started seven years ago when young activists from a Budapest based young adult Jewish organized called Marom, part of the Masorti (conservative movement)] began squatting in an abandoned building in what was once the Jewish quarter.

On their own they refurbished the building, including painting, wiring for electricity, and hooking it up to a water main, among other major repairs. Once completed, they turned the site into a vibrant center for Jewish life, which in turn helped launch a Jewish summer festival in the countryside that sold 7,000 tickets this past year.

Sirály (photo above – pronounced ‘shira’i’), lasted for a year under the radar and another six with the green light of the municipality until they were booted out.

With the help of the UJA-Federation of New York, they are moving to a new site one neighborhood over in Nyocker, with the goal of one day becoming self-sufficient. Already they have built a café/bar on the premises and they are renting out office space to other cultural organizations.

Aurora’s leader himself has an interesting story.

Schonberger grew up in Budapest, born to two Jewish parents whose own parents all managed to survive the Holocaust. His father is a rabbi and one of the few rabbis trained locally at a Hungarian rabbinical seminary.

After the fall of communism, Schonberger attended Jewish schools and later spent a year in Israel at Bar-Ilan University.

In addition to his role as Director of Marom Budapest, he is also an actor and director with a background in theater.

Although his father wanted him to also become a rabbi, he was more interested in community building.

“What is important to me is to work together with the community and with other communities to better understand who we are,” he said.

That is why Sirály – and now in its newest incarnation as Aurora – is so important to him.

“This is a very important task that we have ahead of us – to create a free space for people to easily connect to their Jewish roots and also to provide a reference point to what it means to be a Jewish person in contemporary Hungary,” he said.

But their task is broader than just the Jewish perspective. By focusing on human rights through a combination of social action and dialogue, what Schonberger is looking for is to give young Hungarian Jews the opportunity to be part of an international world while being rooted in their Jewishness.

“What does it mean to be a minority or an oppressed group in Hungary and how can we create a clearer vision of the other oppressed groups? I really hope this center is going to be a hub of understanding each other and of understanding the reality of our own identity at the same time,” he said.