Judafest Celebrates 10 Years of Bringing Jewish Life to the Streets of Budapest

Against a backdrop of rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish identity was proudly on display at the 10th anniversary celebration of Judafest, a renowned Jewish Street Festival in Budapest. Bringing together locals and visitors of all backgrounds, the multicultural event – now officially accredited as a European festival by the European Festival Association – drew in more than 10,000 attendees looking to get a fresh taste of Jewish culture.

Led by thirty-five volunteers -and supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) which founded Judafest, the Thalheimer Family, twenty-seven Jewish organizations, six European embassies and cultural institutes – this year’s festival included interactive games and engaging programming to highlight the event’s theme of a united European Jewish community.

“It’s amazing and atypical to have 28 Jewish organizations in one place, cooperating and working together. It’s the biggest event in the Jewish community uniting all of these Jewish organizations, and that makes us happy,” said Peter Berenyi, director of Judafest. “Much of the festival’s success we owe to the team of staff and dedicated volunteers who pour a lot of energy, creativity, and time into making this event so great.”

On Friday night, June 9, Judafest kicked off with a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony housed in the Heroes Synagogue, with 250 people in attendance. This religious ceremony was especially poignant as it marks the first time that a religious element was added to the festival. Prior to the ceremony, Hungary’s Rabbi Róbert Frölich was on hand for a lecture explaining the Shabbat prayers and the meaning of the prayers for those who might not have understood its significance or who generally do not attend services. In fact, an “Ask the Rabbi” panel that happened later in the festival included Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Neolog Jews, representing the wide spectrum of Judaism which further underlined the diversity of the various Jewish organizations who helped to prepare the festival’s programming.

Attendees also had front row seats to musical performances like a Klezmer ensemble from the Czech Republic, and access to a Kafka exhibit including a big statue of the legendary Golem made of ice, serving as a perfect way to cool down on the hot day.

Delicious Jewish cuisine, freshly made on site, was available throughout the festival’s colorful fair, located on the historical Kazinczy Street, one of Europe’s most popular tourist spots in downtown Budapest. During the festival, one of the crowd favorites was also a discussion where local celebrities talked about cooking Jewish food.

“What makes the festival so special is its colorfulness and its diversity. The fact that we are celebrating Judaism on the streets of Budapest’s Jewish quarter today makes us proud,” said JDC’s Zoya Shvartzman.

Exhibits highlighting famous Jews from Europe, such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, was an engaging way for participants to simultaneously learn more about these key Jewish personalities and Jewish culture and history. Mazsihisz, the Hungarian Jewish Federation, hosted a Jewish trivia game mirroring the American television show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and the Israeli Cultural Institute taught people about Israel, including how to write their name in Hebrew, and make bracelets from beads displaying Hebrew letters.

Walking tours showcasing Budapest’s Jewish quarter were organized by JDC together with Haver, Centropa, and Teleki synagogue. 100 people, breast cancer survivors and their aides, also took part in the Women’s Health Empowerment Program’s Tikkun Olam dinner, whose focus this year was on raising awareness for breast cancer.

For children, a designated area offered fun activities including arts and crafts, face painting, a concert, hora dancing, a “fun run” race in partnership with Maccabi Hungary, and a kibbutz activity that enabled kids to exchange gulot (small glass balls) for a present. Clowns and acrobats on stilts were also on deck in the kid’s space for entertainment.

Representatives of EUNIC, the network of European Union National Cultural Institutes, were present at Judafest as Europe was named its guest of honor, symbolizing the need for ongoing dialogue in today’s complicated world.

“This year, Europe serving as the guest of honor helped to raise the bar on this event as it was a much more colorful program than last year. For me, it feels very good that so many organizations are involved in Judafest. It is a real source of happiness, offering a good atmosphere and serving a great purpose,” said Sonja, a Judafest participant.

Judafest has not only brought Jewish culture and pride to the streets of Budapest for the last decade, but will continue to foster ongoing cooperation among different European Jewish groups for years to come.