Jewish Revival in Germany and Hungary

[To celebrate Limmud’s 35th year, eJewishPhilanthropy is offering a look into Jewish communities around the world through the eyes of Limmud volunteers. Limmud, the global grassroots Jewish learning movement founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries on six continents.

This installment focuses on Limmuds in the renascent central European Jewish communities of Germany and Hungary.]

The Uniqueness of Limmud Germany

A pause to reflect and refuel at Limmud Germany 2015; photo by Yuri Sokolov.
A pause to reflect and refuel at Limmud Germany 2015; photo by Yuri Sokolov.

By Méli Solomon

Why is Limmud Germany different from all other Limmuds? Germany itself.

Given our history, our community’s very existence is heartening to us and surprising to visitors. It is a wonderful testament to the ability of Jews to recover and grow anew.

Limmud Germany reflects the complex history of central Europe and the broader reality of Jewish life today. A child-survivor of the Holocaust discusses Pirkei Avot with an American-Israeli visiting professor. A secular Jew who broke from Orthodoxy continues the discussion about Transcendent Judaism with a German convert and his American expat wife. A Russian immigrant participates in a workshop about her second-generation cohort.

This panoply makes the Limmud Germany festival rich and unique. One sees it in the range of topics, as well as the languages used. Besides German and English, there’s a generous dose of Russian and Hebrew. This is not unusual in German cities, and one of the first questions asked in most conversations is which language will be used. Our last Limmud event in May 2015 even included a small contingent of French speakers.

German Jewry todaya snapshot

You will hear German, Russian, Hebrew, English – even some French – at the Limmud Germany festival; photo by Yuri Sokolov.
You will hear German, Russian, Hebrew, English – even some French – at the Limmud Germany festival; photo by Yuri Sokolov.

Jews have been in the area now known as Germany, or Ashkenaz, since the fourth century. A 2010 Pew study reported a Jewish population of 230,000. This falls well short of the 523,000 who lived in Germany before the Nazis came to power, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, but represents an incredible jump from the 37,000 present in 1950. More than 100,000 Jews are members of Jewish communities, with at least another 100,000 unaffiliated. Following the Soviet Union’s 1992 collapse, the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet republics significantly increased the Jewish population.

Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city, is home to an estimated 50,000 Jews – up from just 6,000 in 1990; 11,000 are affiliated (up from 6,000 in 1990). That includes around 15,000 Israelis (although estimates run as high as 25,000) and assorted English-speaking expats. There are also Jewish communities in approximately 100 other cities and towns, with larger concentrations in Munich, Frankfurt am Main and the Ruhr Valley.

Life as a Jew in Germany today has as many stories as there are Jews. There is undoubtedly rising anti-Semitism across Europe and we are careful about our outward appearances, yet there’s generally a sense of modest comfort, of cautious optimism. While German Jews may no longer be “sitting on packed suitcases,” the luggage remains at hand. Still and all, Limmud, like other Jewish events, has a security detail as a necessary precaution.

Circles of impact

The younger set gets creative at Limmud Germany 2015; photo by Yuri Sokolov.
The younger set gets creative at Limmud Germany 2015; photo by Yuri Sokolov.

The first Limmud Germany event was a Limmud Day in summer 2006, followed by a four-day festival in 2008, which attracted roughly 300 participants and offered upwards of 90 workshops. It has since grown and grown up.

Limmud Germany festival in May 2015 was a four-day event with nearly 400 participants. We had more than 150 sessions, plus Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal services, as well as a robust children and teen program for 100 youngsters. The wide array of presentations reflected the breadth of interests, from a soccer tournament for the under-12 set to a discussion of Jews in East Germany or a talk on modern Arab literature in Israel.

Given the common reticence to express Jewishness, each festival provides a place to celebrate Jewishness unabashedly. And, owing to our openness, Limmud Germany attracts many non-affiliated Jews.

This year, the gathering was held for the first time at a North Sea resort. Having exclusive use of the resort enhanced the feeling of community and fostered connections all too infrequent outside Limmud, but necessary for strengthening communal ties the other 361 days of the year.

Its circle of impact includes those on the periphery of Jewish life even as it influences the more traditional Jewish programming. “Limmud has been an inspiration for other independent Jewish projects in Germany, because it offers a space for Jews who are inside and outside of official communal structures,” said team member Toby Axelrod. “The Limmud style of several simultaneous sessions to choose from has been picked up by other programs – it’s a compliment to us!”

Limmud also provides a space for the Jewish “sub-cultures” to plan a common future. “The immigrants who are Russian speakers have, since the 1990s, brought the German Jewish community a new opportunity as well as a major challenge,” observed Limmud Germany Treasurer Frauke Ohnholz. “Limmud offers the opportunity, outside of community work, to talk and plan a future together.”

With each year, the festival and background operations become stronger and better. We keep experimenting and learning. Expanding the range and scale of participation, as well as the program, are priorities, ones we are on the path of achieving. Especially given the history of Jews in Germany, providing a place for us to gather and celebrate our contemporary Jewish lives is a blessing. L’Chaim!

Méli Solomon is an American expat from Boston who has lived in Berlin since 2009. An active member of the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue, she joined the Limmud team in 2014. Her firm, Solomon Communications, provides training, coaching and editing services, as well as workshops on business skills. She also conducts “Talking with God,” an interview-based project.  


Hungarian Delight

Welcome to Limmud Hungary; photo by Andras Mayer.
Welcome to Limmud Hungary; photo by Andras Mayer.

By Réka Eszter Bodó

Jews have lived in Hungary since the Roman Empire – predating even the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. Their history in Hungary follows the line of every Jewish community in Europe: eras alternating between peaceful cohabitation and persecution depending on the ruling regime, economic climate and wars.

Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, one of the most prominent 19th century scholars was Pressburg Chief Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, better known by the title of his work, Chatam Sofer. Among the Hungarian Jewish community’s more recent famous sons and daughters: Theodor Herzl; Hannah Senesh; Elie Weisel; Harry Houdini; and, chess grandmaster Judit Polgár.

In 1941, the census reported 825,000 Jews in Hungary. However, only 255,000 Jews, less than a third of those living within Hungary in March 1944, survived the Shoah. Today, Jewish population estimates run from 80,000 to 120,000, the vast majority of whom live in Budapest. Some even speculate the figure could be as high as 200,000.

Due to its tumultuous history, though, Hungary also has one of the most un-engaged Jewish communities in the world, with only a dozen active synagogues and other Jewish organizations (which makes it hard to estimate the exact number of Jews). Thousands of Jews don’t even know that they are Jewish since many Holocaust survivors decided to “solve” the family’s “Jewish problem” by hiding their Jewishness from their kids and grandkids in order to achieve full assimilation.

During the Communist regime it was close to impossible to lead a Jewish life, although Hungary hosted the only rabbinical seminary behind the Iron Curtain. This resulted in a “lost generation,” as those born between 1950 and 1970 had almost no opportunity to engage with the Jewish community until after Hungary’s Communist regime fell in 1989.

Since then, Hungary, like other former Soviet satellites, has seen a Jewish revival. In a lot of families, the younger generations are bringing back the Jewish traditions, ideas and knowledge and teaching their parents. In the last 25 years, the community has indeed been gaining a new image: young Jews are looking for “cool” ways to engage with Judaism, including the rise of grassroots organizations, the development of progressive and independent minyanim, and attendance at Szarvas, the wildly popular Jewish summer camp.

Since 1989, the process of rebuilding the Jewish community has been financed largely by North American aid coupled with government reparations for property confiscated during the Holocaust. The downside to this financial assistance, without which it would have been impossible to achieve anything close to what we have now, is that it has all too often discouraged local initiatives.

Chavruta Limmud Hungary style; photo by Peter Hajmasi.
Chavruta Limmud Hungary style; photo by Peter Hajmasi.

Enter Limmud Hungary, whose goal is to nurture a new culture of “volunticipation” – namely, grassroots activism, where everyone contributes to the team effort as a participant. Limmud Hungary aims to encourage local Jews to proactively shape the community to meet their needs and wishes instead of waiting for someone from outside to tell us how.

We have seen this transition take place before our eyes. Our Limmud, initially knows as Limmud Keshet, was born from the coalition between those who dreamt up Limmud Hungary and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The JDC was a catalyzer, with the ultimate goal to bring to life an independent Limmud Hungary. The first Keshet conference was held in September 2006.

Three years later, in 2009, an independent Limmud Hungary was established, run entirely by volunteers. Today, our volunteers range from the director of the Jewish theater to the vice-president of the Orthodox community to a guy who initially wondered whether he was “Jewish enough” to take part – and currently is studying to be a rabbi.

In June 2015, Limmud Hungary attracted several hundred participants, with sessions on the Jewish history of different Budapest neighborhoods, Hungarian-Jewish poets, and Hungarian theater directors in Israel, among many others. In addition, almost 100 people attend year-round activities, including Limmud clubs or volunteer meetings.

The joy of Jewish learning at Limmud Hungary; photo by Andras Mayer.
The joy of Jewish learning at Limmud Hungary; photo by Andras Mayer.

Limmud Hungary has successfully created a bubble within the community where all denominations – or even anti-denominations – ages and genders are welcome to engage in the most Jewish activity of all: learning. We are actively seeking ways to cooperate with as many Jewish communities and organizations as possible. As the Limmud motto says, we are trying to help people take one step further on their Jewish journey.

Réka Eszter Bodó, a long time Limmud volunteer, is currently a Limmud Hungary board member.