In Jewish Budapest, Finding Home Again

By Micah Cowan

After five years away, I’ve returned to Hungary. The last time I was here, it was for two weeks. Now I’m here for a year. The last time I was here, I was still in high school. Now, I’m a college graduate. Back then, I was a camper. Now, I’m working for institutions of its Jewish community. 

On my first visit, I attended the second session of Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp in a small town two hours’ drive from the capital as a part of the North American delegation. I was surrounded by 24 other North Americans who hoped to connect with and learn from Jews from all around the world. We met Jews from the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, and elsewhere across Europe. For many of the kids and teens that attend Szarvas from all over the world, it is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience what it is like to be surrounded by other Jews, learn about Jewish practice, and discover the power of Jewish communal relationships. 

These short two weeks opened my eyes to a major facet of the Jewish world that was untapped in my Jewish upbringing: there were non-American Jews, and non-American Jewish teens in the world that cared about being Jewish and creating spaces where being Jewish was celebrated.

That summer, in combination with my drive to work in the Jewish world outside of Conservative Judaism, led me to apply to become a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow. Each of the nine fellows in my cohort were placed in different locations around the world to serve Jewish communities and contribute to community life while developing leadership capacities and knowledge of global Jewish causes. I was matched with the placement in Hungary, where I now work at the JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház, one of the flagship institutions of Jewish life in this country that was founded by JDC when it partnered with the local community to revitalize Jewish life after Communism. There, I am building out its communications channels to English-language audiences and also developing innovative, creative programming for BBYO teens at the Frankel Leó Synagogue.

When I was told where I would be spending my year as JSC fellow, I immediately thought, “does this mean I get to go back to Szarvas?”

I do indeed get to return to Szarvas, though this excitement was also balanced with reasonable concerns I had about moving to a new country, away from my family, friends, and basically all that was familiar to me. This challenge became particularly apparent after realizing that in my first month I’d be celebrating the High Holidays in Hungary.

I had never spent a full High Holiday season without my family to at least some extent. If I didn’t go home, the whole family (and dog!) would schlep up from Maryland to New York with a minivan full of food prepared to feed an army, more than the family that will be eating it over the chag.

But I was in Hungary this year. There was no brisket, chicken, lamb, or veal, each at a different meal over the new year. There were no Cowan-family traditions that I could partake in without being with the rest of the family. There was no sermon from the Rabbi that connected the High Holidays with donating to the shul (or there may have been, but I didn’t understand it).

I wondered, if those features which had, until now, defined my High Holidays, couldn’t follow me to Hungary?  What would my holiday experience be in this foreign environment?

The good news: I still ate. I had my apples and honey. With the help of one of my colleagues, I had a place to go for a couple of meals and had some on my own. 

I still attended services. Not only attended, but the rabbi and cantor at the Frankel Leó Synagogue asked me to lead Shacharit on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I had led the service multiple times back home in America, where I was confident doing so after reviewing the logistics of what I would be doing as the service leader with the clergy of the congregation. No such pre-service meeting happened here.

The nusach (tunes) they use for davening are not the same as those I use from the bima. However, the cantor at the synagogue didn’t care, he and the rabbi wanted me to lead.

When Hungarian Jews daven, they generally have a much thicker Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew than I have ever attempted. They didn’t care, they wanted me to lead.

The machzor they used was unfamiliar to me, so I wanted to meet with him to put some post-its in so I’d know what I’d be doing when. They didn’t care, they wanted me to lead. “Whatever you do, it will be great, don’t worry about it.”

This same spirit infused my experience a week later when I was asked to lead one of the three Kol Nidre recitations on the night before Yom Kippur, one of the only times during the year where the synagogue would be overflowing with people, to the point where people would have to stand outside of the synagogue itself.

Despite my style and pronunciation being so obviously and clearly different from theirs, the community didn’t just open their arms to me, but pulled me in full force to make me feel welcome, wanted, and valuable.

I have just inserted myself into a Jewish community that is so different from the many different ones I have experienced and been a part of in America. And at one of the holiest, most important, familial holidays of the Jewish year, they made me a part of their kehillah kedosha, their holy community.

Micah Cowan is the 2019-2020 JDC Entwine JSC Donner Fellow and a graduate of the List College Joint Program of JTS and Columbia University.