By Liam Hoare
Charity Taxi was formed in Budapest during the refugee crisis of 2015 – a time that inspired many both in and out of the Hungarian Jewish community towards political and social activism, as its founding director Tamás Horn explained to me during a visit to the capital in August. Charity Taxi is a social justice project that collects people’s donations such as unwanted clothes from their doorstep, takes them to be sorted, and then distributes them to underprivileged and disadvantaged villages in Budapest’s periphery. Aside from its educational mission, Charity Taxi is a humanitarian link between the city and the country, fostering, according to Horn, a greater sense of community and social responsibility.
Charity Taxi is one of a number of new social initiatives that have grown up in Budapest under the umbrella of Budapest’s Mozaik Jewish Community Hub over the past three years. Salaam-Shalom Budapest, whose goal is to create opportunities for Jewish-Muslim interaction and collaboration, and Talmud NOW, which aims “to bring closer Jewish texts to our contemporary lives,” are other examples of start-up projects who have made their home at Mozaik, an incubator and pilot project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that provides seed funds and mentoring, as well as infrastructure, co-working space, and customized professional support, training, and learning opportunities to Jewish NGOs in Budapest.
The work on Mozaik began five years, when the JDC in Hungary began a conversation about what they could do in terms of community development in Budapest specifically. The main Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ) provided the foundations of Jewish communal life and has a strong financial and political relationship with the Hungarian state. But revolving around MAZSIHISZ was a constellation of NGOs and private initiatives that, while run by very engaged members of the community and providing strong programming, very much lacked support, not only in a monetary sense, but also professionally in terms of access to training, skills, and knowledge.
Originally Mozaik was a response to these needs and challenges. Founded in 2015 with lead support from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, UJA-Federation of New York, and New-York based philanthropist and JDC Board Member Jayne Lipman, Mozaik initially worked and brought together under one roof the city’s existing Jewish NGOs, including Hillel Hungary, Limmud Hungary, the educational project Haver (which inserts informal Jewish education into the Hungarian school system in order to counter prejudice and ignorance about Judaism), and the nonprofit historical institute Centropa Hungary. Mentoring and professional support formed the core of the work Mozaik provided and still provides to these NGOs.
The process begins with consultancy and mentoring, helping NGOs and initiatives with various forms of internal assessment on subjects from organization to financial management and coaching them on communication, advocacy, and leadership development. Thereafter, Mozaik provides training and workshops on a host of topics: strategic planning, resource development, public relations, and so on – seminars that otherwise due to their cost would be inaccessible for these NGOs. Mozaik’s ambition, as its director Mircea Cernov explained to me, is to build up these NGOs into sustainable organizations, whose work will as a consequence have a much greater impact than it would have had without their help.
“In the beginning I didn’t have a strategy, just this idea,” Horn said of Charity Taxi, when Cernov first approached him two years ago, offering the Hub’s services in supporting his initiative. “We started to work together. I participated in the training sessions, because I didn’t know anything about leading an organization or fundraising, and we began to work together on the strategic plan. Now we are working on our long-term strategic plan. Without the Hub, we would probably still be an informal group,” Horn concluded.
“For us it’s different because when we joined in the Hub, Haver had been around” since 2002, Haver coordinator Péter Neumann told me. Still, the Hub has been “a big help” for the organization in terms of providing training and mentoring for new staff, giving one “the base knowledge that you need in order to be an NGO,” as well as creating and revising over time its long-term strategy for fundraising and forming new partnerships. Looking back, Neumann sees that although he had “some educational and NGO experience, I was new to this” and working with and inside the Hub enabled Haver to “work effectively and reach our goals,” he said.
Prior to the existence of Mozaik, it is not that this kind of training did not exist in Budapest, where since 1989 an extensive NGO community has developed, one whose place in civil society is now being challenged. Rather, as Neumann said, it is that those tools were out-of-reach to these smaller Jewish NGOs because the cost of attending NGO management sessions in the private sector, for example, would have been exorbitant and the number of people doing pro bono work in this field in Budapest is very limited. Mozaik, Horn added, has enabled Charity Taxi’s volunteers – who also have full-time jobs and families – to attend training sessions they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access.
Aside from training and professionalization, Mozaik has also acted as something of a bridge between the NGO movement and established Jewish communal institutions like MAZSIHISZ. Via forums and roundtables on subjects like LGBTQ inclusivity or access to communal life for disabled Jews, Mozaik has sought to foster dialogue and, in Cernov’s words, build a common language between the NGOs and the establishment. The goal is to “establish a much more collaborative ecosystem in the community,” Cernov said, and Neumann added that the community forums have become an excellent way for those active in particular fields to meet one another.
On one level, this has led to closer cooperation between the NGOs themselves – for example, the start-up Talmud NOW and the more-established Limmud Hungary, whose interests and concerns naturally overlap. “It’s much easier to create a common program, not only when you’re sharing the space, but attending the same training and forums,” Neumann said. But as if not more importantly, these dialogues have created conversations between the NGOs and the community establishment, forging new connections and thereby altering the very structure of the Hungarian Jewish community itself, creating a playing field where the NGOs and community establishment speak with one another and cooperate as equal partners.
Mozaik has been “essential for us in mediating between MAZSIHISZ and the civil arena,” MAZSIHISZ president András Heisler told me. Their community forums have “contributed a lot” to MAZSIHISZ’s own process of reform and debates about the community’s organization and the future direction of Neologism, he said: “We count on their cooperation.” Overall, Heisler believes “it is important to maintain relations with civil organizations that are connected to the unconnected parts of the Jewish society” through initiatives like the forum on social responsibility. He supported Mozaik’s goal that the Jewish NGO community in Budapest “should be stronger and more effective.”
While acknowledging that the process of reforming MAZSIHISZ is a long and difficult one, Neumann said that “the Hub has increased our accessibility to the Federation, in the sense that there have been forums at which the president of the Federation was present and there is now a dialogue, a conversation with him.” At a time when Cernov and the JDC are assessing the success of the Hub, he believes that, as a consequence of Mozaik’s work, “today is the Jewish community is much more open, much more pluralistic, much more aware and eager to answer the needs of different Jewish community members – and the NGOs [themselves] have an increased capacity to answer those needs.”
Those who lead Jewish NGOs are becoming more creative and innovative, Cernov continued, “in the way they work, what they do, and how they do it. There are increasingly financially sustainable, they are working much more efficiently, and there is an increased self-awareness about the challenges they have and options and alternatives they have to answer them.” Over the last three years, then, more than simply an idea or a concept, the Mozaik Jewish Community Hub has become, Cernov concluded, “the address in the community for people who have ideas and want to be engaged or involved” in Jewish communal life in Budapest.