On International Women’s Day, a Hungarian Jewish Trailblazer Builds Community for Tomorrow
Zsuzsa Fritz’s whole life has been about the power of potential. As a woman who has refused to see a glass ceiling, defying expectations is the basis of how she operates. It’s the attitude that has helped her build a successful career and rise to a leadership position. It’s also what allows her to be successful in her work for another underestimated group: Hungarian Jewry.
Ironically, while she has dedicated her life to this community, as a child growing up in Hungary, her local Jewish community was never of her concern – simply because she never knew she was Jewish.
Born in 1966, Zsuzsa lived with her parents and grandparents in Budapest. From the outside, she led the life of a typical Hungarian girl, spending her days playing in front of the Houses of Parliament and walking along the Danube River. However, it was at age 16, when her father passed away that Zsuzsa came to discover a long-held family secret. Her father was buried at a Jewish cemetery, and as everyone at the funeral began praying in an unfamiliar language, she realized the truth: her family was Jewish.
“It made me curious, it made me confused a little. (And) it wasn’t a shock, it was something like ‘Aha!’,” explained Zsuzsa.
She soon learned that her family secret was not unique, and the story behind it was all too common in her community. The Holocaust, followed by decades of Communist rule, forced many Hungarian Jews to conceal their identities, hiding it from their families and future generations, eventually nearly eradicating all Jewish life in Hungary.
Armed with this new knowledge, Zsuzsa began her quest to discover her roots. She began attending Friday night services at the local rabbi, finding a sense of community she didn’t know she was missing. Eventually, when Communism fell, Jewish schools, youth movements and organizations began forming in the region, and Zsuzsa excitedly embraced them all. She began volunteering in Jewish community programs, made a trip to Israel, and in 1990, started working for the JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization, helping to create the educational programming for its new international Jewish summer camp in the foothills of Hungary, Camp Szarvas, a project with the Lauder Foundation.
Thirty years later, Zsuzsa hasn’t stopped working for her community. Today, she is the Director of the JCC Budapest, or Balint House, Hungary’s first modern Jewish community center, a position she has held for the last 15 years. Founded by JDC in 1994, the JCC Budapest offers programs and events for all ages, acting as a hub for the Hungarian Jewish community, many of whom are looking their place as Jews in Hungary.
“(So) we’re trying to create in the community multiple programs and open doors so that it makes it easier for these people to come and then maybe to make the first step… And we hope that once they make that first step, they will realize that it’s actually something that they want because it gives something to their lives, it gives a positive identification with Judaism and it’s warm and it’s community and it’s welcoming so maybe then they’ll make the second step and the third step and the fourth step and then they’re inside.”
And it’s working. With an estimated 150,000 Jews living in the country today, Zsuzsa is among the leaders at the helm of the resurgence of Jewish life in Hungary and is credited with creating the thriving Jewish community that exists there today.
However, Zsuzsa’s role goes beyond just inspiring the Jewish community, Zsuzsa understands that the future also depends on training the next generations of leaders.
“As a JCC director, we have a lot of responsibility. We run programs, we cooperate with a lot of organizations, we are responsible for a lot of people who are members and I think that it starts and ends with the team. The people on my team need to be the ones who communicate, who transmit the message, who live the message of the JCC and that’s what I believe in, that’s what I think is the main task, is really to train them into being who they want their community to be.”
Another part of Zsuzsa’s vision for the future of Hungarian Jewry includes bringing more women into positions of power. Not only has she blazed that trail, she is joined across the post-Communist world by numerous women emerging in professional leadership roles in the Jewish community, including the directors of JCCs in Warsaw and Kyiv. According to Zsuzsa, “I think we women are connectors … the one thing that needs to have a connected global network is the Jewish community, and I think women are the messengers who can do that.”
Hungary’s resurgence in Jewish life would have been nearly impossible to predict. This is the result of people, like Zsuzsa, who as a female leader and a Hungarian Jew, understands that when you give people ]a chance, open doors, and present opportunities – the possibilities are endless.