Through Hub, Talmud for Women

12696919_10153830232558911_4090992519162363934_oBy Alex Weisler

When Borcsa Lakos returned to Budapest after eight months of intensive Jewish study in Stockholm, she was hungry to share her newfound love of Talmud with other young Hungarian Jews.

But everywhere she looked, she found barriers: difficulties in finding and booking Talmud experts, a scarcity of study opportunities outside of Orthodox religious institutions, and – despite support from many in the community – doors closed to women.

“I feel more safe, that there are people and venues who support me. The hub makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.”

That’s when she decided to create her own program – Talmud nem csak nöknek. Translated from the Hungarian as “Talmud not only for women,” Lakos chose the title to subvert the traditional notion that Talmud study is for men only.

“I respect that idea, but I think it’s important to have a different point of view,” said Lakos, 29. “I know how important this is to me, this ancient Jewish way to study a text – and I wanted to share my experience.”

Since December 2014, Lakos’s initiative has brought together about two dozen young Hungarians for a monthly Talmud study event featuring one male and one female speaker.

And it’s one of the first success stories of JDC’s new Mozaik Hub in Budapest – just one of the many entry-points into Jewish life JDC has brought to Hungary after the community endured decades of communist oppression.

Opened in May 2015, the hub – part co-working space, part nonprofit incubator – offers support to emerging Jewish professionals in the form of weekly lessons on best practices in arenas like project management, financial planning, marketing, and more.

Fifteen projects are now affiliated with the hub, located in an apartment building in downtown Budapest about two blocks from the Danube.

Over the course of the year, the member organizations will come together for four community forums addressing hot-button issues facing Budapest’s Jewish community – LGBTQ inclusion, youth and education, and the future of community journalism.

Some groups, like Limmud Hungary and the Centropa Foundation, are resident members with dedicated office space. Others are affiliate members utilizing Mozaik’s professional resources and its staff’s nonprofit management – like the Bet Orim Reform Jewish Community.

Lakos’s Talmud project occupies a third category, “hub-ups” – nascent ideas brought to Mozaik, and then finessed, nurtured, and encouraged.

“When you run a small NGO, you can’t focus on your potential. You’re fighting for survival,” said Mircea Cernov, the hub’s director. “We’re a catalyst in this environment, focusing on empowering local leaders to act professionally and think big.”

Lakos approached the JDC hub in October 2015, having previously struggled on a small budget to both book a space for her events and provide an honorarium to her speakers.

Now, she knows she can turn to Mozaik.

“At home, I’m juggling so many different things. At the hub, I know I can focus on this project,” said Lakos, who has a degree in economics and works as a tour guide. “I feel more safe, that there are people and venues who support me. The hub makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.”

That’s the kind of feedback that makes the hard work of getting Mozaik off the ground worth it, said Bence Tordai, Cernov’s deputy at the hub.

“What we do … we have been reinforced every day that this is what should be done,” he said. “These are things that organizations and people need – and they’re willing to learn.”

Lakos’s most recent event was March 8, International Women’s Day, and she booked Zsusza Fritz, the executive director of JDC’s Balint Haz JCC, as her female speaker. A previous Talmud nem csak nöknek event held at the Jewish community center was Lakos’s most popular yet – with about 50 attendees.

Another event centered on Hungary’s migrant and refugee crisis, turning to Talmud and text study to explore what Judaism has to say about how to welcome the stranger.

But Lakos secretly prefers even smaller, quieter events of 20 to 30 people. That, she said, is the best environment for real hevruta – the Talmudic study technique of poring over a text in pairs.

And if that text study is occurring in one of the famous, semi-decaying “ruin pubs” – hip bars and restaurants housed in reclaimed buildings in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter — or by the side of a river 50 miles from the city at a summer festival spotlighting alternative art and music? Or at the center of Jewish Budapest’s emerging startup culture, the hub itself?

Even better, Lakos said.

“I want it so that whenever you feel like it, you can grab a beer or a wine. It should have the same loose atmosphere as an event where there are kids running around,” she said. “It’s not study every day like they do in the yeshiva, but what we’re doing is still special.”

This post is part of a series on the pioneering work being done by Jewish women in Hungary; courtesy JDC.