Open Doors at the JCC

IMG_7680By Alex Weisler

BUDAPEST – Zsuzsa Fritz knows exactly where she was when she realized she was Jewish: 16, grief-stricken at her father’s funeral, and alternately confused and captivated by unfamiliar prayers in an unfamiliar language.

Intrigued by her heritage once she “put together the puzzle pieces,” she joined a cohort of about 30-40 young people who spent Friday nights praying, connecting, planning, and dreaming in the corridors of the Budapest University of Jewish Studies rabbinical seminary.

“In Hungary, there’s a lot of closed doors. The only way to succeed is to open them.”

It wasn’t necessarily about prayer, Fritz said, but about the search for identity. And in the waning days of communism, during the last gasps of an authoritarian regime that had limited religious expression for decades, something new – something uniquely Hungarian, something uniquely Jewish – was born.

“Being Jewish was thrilling,” she said. “The euphoria of suddenly being free as Jews and free as Hungarian at the same … it was a blast of energy for people.”

As democracy came to Hungary and JDC re-entered the community and established a host of institutions and initiatives, Fritz found herself at the forefront of it all – coordinating children’s activities once JDC opened the Bálint Ház JCC in 1994. Two years later, she joined the team, and about a decade ago, she became its executive director.

Back when she began her career as a Jewish communal professional at JDC-Lauder’s Szarvas international Jewish summer camp, she would learn a lesson one day and have to teach it to her campers the next.

Twenty years later, this is no longer a city of tenuous, striving Jewish communal life. Jewish Budapest is robust, vibrant, and confident.

It’s from this place of strength that Fritz is able to reach out beyond Bálint Ház’s walls and connect with other groups affected by Hungary’s rising anti-Semitism and far-right political extremism.

In recent years, she’s adapted “open doors” as her JCC’s motto and battle cry, welcoming nonprofits serving a wide array of Hungarians from all backgrounds – victims of domestic violence, the LGBT population, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program for breast cancer patients and survivors, and many more.

Fritz said Hungarian anti-Semitism is a crafty beast, often expanding its view of “Jews” to include anyone who’s not an ethnic Hungarian.

That’s why she opens her doors.

“I feel that being Jewish comes with a responsibility to the world. When you see all the issues facing us today, it’s not enough to just be safe and sound at home,” she said. “In Hungary, there’s a lot of closed doors. The only way to succeed is to open them.”

The partnerships take many forms. A recent Tu B’Shvat celebration married a study of Talmudic texts related to environmentalism with representatives of the World Wildlife Fund and a local organization advocating commuting by bicycle as a way of reducing Budapesters’ carbon footprint. Each year, as the city marks its gay pride celebration, a Reform congregation in the city uses the JCC’s main auditorium for a special LGBT Kabbalat Shabbat service.

The Transvanilla transgender advocacy organization has used the JCC for meetings and special events since 2011. Krisztina Kolos Orban, the group’s vice president, said Fritz welcomed her and her colleagues when no one else would.

“We approached other places and institutions and they were not very friendly to us. Many times they didn’t even respond to our emails,” she said. “But with the JCC, it was so easy. Back when they started hosting us, we were working with no money and on a volunteer basis. Their help was life-saving for us.”

Other events at the JCC have included an art festival featuring about 100 homeless artists, a Valentine’s Day event featuring a short play from “The Vagina Monologues” icon Eve Ensler on the importance of consent, and a photo exhibit and gift collection initiative focused on refugee children.

Andras Kovats, executive director of Menedek (the word means “refuge” in Hungarian), said Fritz’s approach is rare in today’s Hungary. His organization sometimes rents space from the JCC and has partnered with Bálint Ház on panel discussions and other events.

“I see very often that human rights activists seldom consider that other disadvantaged groups face problems that stem from the same mentality,” he said. “Bálint Ház very consciously tries to overcome that and tries to find the commonalities.”

Zsofia Somogyi, who coordinates tikkun olam projects for the JCC, said it’s sometimes easier for Jews to spark these types of conversations than other Hungarians.

It’s a real asset to come from a tradition whose values point directly at ideas like repairing the world, being kind to your neighbor, and welcoming the stranger, she said.

“We don’t change politics. We don’t say, ‘Vote for this party.’ We start a conversation,” she said. “The whole society needs a chance to work out these sensitive questions.”

As a woman, Fritz said she feels a special responsibility to be inclusive.

She recalled a social change and entrepreneurship event held at the JCC years ago. She wasn’t invited, but she poked her head in to make sure the chairs were set up properly and the food was where it should be. When she did, she found only men.

“What is this? A cigar club?” she remembers thinking. “This is not going to be the social change I want.”

Hungary still feels like a male-dominated society, Fritz said. Only about 20 percent of politicians in Parliament are women.

“I know from my own experience how much it matters and counts that I’m a woman,” she said. “It’s important that women get a voice – and this is a country where women aren’t generally heard the way they should be.”

Fritz said she knows Hungarians on the margins are not always welcomed by society at-large. That’s why it’s so important for her to include them in her definition of community.

“At a very important point in my life, I got a community, and that’s what I want for everyone – to feel that,” she said. “I feel so thrilled to be part of a Jewish community that feels so strong. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”

This post is part of a series on the pioneering work being done by Jewish women in Hungary; courtesy JDC.