Monday, June 3, 2013

The Weight of History

I’m in Boston tomorrow preparing a group of dedicated and impressive philanthropists through CJP (the Boston Jewish Federation) to go with me to Hungary in August.

One of the key factors here is history, and the weight of history.

For nearly a thousand years, Jews in Hungary have faced rising and falling fortunes. They’ve seen shifting political powers and threats to Jewish life.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Jewish life in Hungary was thriving; pre-war Budapest had a Jewish population of 23% and there were more than 125 synagogues operating. But everything was threatened in the years between the Wars, with repressive anti-Jewish legislation, rampant anti-Semitism and brutal pogroms.

By the end of WWII, 50% of Budapest’s pre-war Jewish population had been massacred in Auschwitz and the labor camps. For those that survived, the rise of communism in Hungary in 1949 weakened any remaining Jewish affiliations, further unraveling the chain linking Jews to their tradition.

We’re still facing the after-effects of the 2008 economic crisis and its toll on Jewish community life in Hungary. Middle-class and struggling Jewish families have been plunged into serious financial distress. Many call it the rise of the “new poor.”
With European open borders (“Schengen rules”) there’s been a massive emigration of young Hungarians to western Europe … one of my colleagues told me the other day that many Hungarians think that their country is getting poorer and older.

So … there are new needs, new strains on resources, and in the midst of all this, a revitalizing Jewish community. How this will all shape out is going to be the subject of our discussions this week in Boston, and in August on the ground.

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