World Jewish News
Head of the Jewish community of Hungary: 'The biggest problems are inside the community'
16.06.2017, Community Life
In Hungary, the main Jewish organization is the Hungarian Jewish Federation (MAZSIHISZ), which has a great history and tells a lot about the Hungarian Jewry.
In an interview with European Jewish Press, the president of the Federation, Andras Heisler, describes the biggest challenges and issues of the community.
EJP: How can you define the role of the Jewish Federation in the Hungarian Jewish life?
A.H.: Let’s start with some history. The Hungarian Jewry suffered two big traumas’ in the 20th century.: one of them was the Shoah, and the other was the anti-religious dictatorship, which lasted for 40 years. Throughout this dictatorship, the institutional Jewish network was basically eliminated or strictly controlled by the state authorities. After the regime-change in 1989 – and already in the last years of the dictatorship - the Jewish life started to come back to Hungary. Many new organizations were created and also the religious life started to operate freely through various channels. For now, we have 5 different groups: The Hungarian Jewish Federation from the neologie’s side, the traditional orthodoxy, the Chabad and two reform communities (a conservative minyan also exists within the framework of a youth movement, Marom). The Jewish federation had a monopoly position for many years and also wanted to keep it – which was a big mistake according to my opinion - while preventing the non-profit organizations operations. Today we have a different situation. The Jewish Federation has four very important roles in the community: to keep the religious life, to help the improvement of the prospering Jewish life in Hungary, to maintain its institutions and last but not least to protect the community.
EJP: There is one more organizations that is also quite active and that’s the EMIH from the Chabad’s side. How is your relationship with them?
A.H.: It is obvious for everyone that there is a kind of opposition between us. We are glad to cooperate with any organization that seems to be willing to do so, but nowadays the Chabad works separately – not only from the Federation, but from most of the Jewish organizations in Hungary. They have a different kind of view, which is fine with us and we wish them success in their work. But we can only do that until they don’t want to interfere our structure. Unfortunately, sometimes they try to.
EJP: What about the non-profit organizations?
A.H.: Our relationship with them is better and better. Last year the Federation announced a new slogan: to represent the Jewry which is open to the changing world. Everybody liked it a lot, so this year we started to think about how we can prove it to the community. One of the organizations, called Centropa, asked us to give a venue to their conference dinner. We gave them even more – as they say today we acted proactively. We gave them a venue, and a banquet, and we also invited a minister to the conference. Our campaign this year to have the 1% tax was all about supporting the Jewish organizations. We gave them the opportunity to appear and we offered support for the ones who participated in the campaign.
EJP: How is your relationship with the government?
A.H.: At the 70th anniversary of the Shoah we told the government that we have an issue with their remembrance-policy. We told them that if they cannot change something about it, we are not going to be able to remember with them, and we will give back all the money they gave us for it. They didn’t change anything, so we kept our promise and gave back a quite big amount of money. We received some criticism from the community regarding this, but now I have to say that it was the most important and best decision the Federation has ever made. It was the first time, that we told the government: no. We had straightened up after the 40 years of dictatorship at that moment. Today our task is to keep it as it is. After these events we didn’t even talk to the government for about 6 months. Than a minister contacted us and said: let’s change the conflict to cooperation. Since than we started to work with the government on different projects. A few weeks ago I met Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and I told him that we are ready to make compromises in any cooperation, but not in the remembrance-policy. We have 600 000 martyrs behind us.
EJP: What are the biggest problems the Hungarian Jewry has to face?
A.H.: Ourselves. Not the anti-Semitism, nor the press or the government, neither the migration. The biggest problems are inside our system. It is really hard to find new rabbis, we need to improve the operation of our institutions and we should pay more attention to the community itself. We should also improve the level of education and we have to pay more attention to the things that are trying to treat the reality. Most of the marriages are mixed marriage and that the willing to donate to Tzedakah is awful, family traditions are gone…..
EJP: In what aspects is Hungarian Jewry special inside Europe?
A.H.: First of all, we need to emphasize that in Hungary the Jews and their institutions are relatively safe. We can meet verbal anti-Semitism, but it’s also very dangerous because you never know where is the borderline. Nobody knows when it would turn into physical anti-Semitism. The other advantage is that except for France, the UK and maybe Germany, Hungary has one of the largest Jewish communities ever. It’s a great opportunity and a huge responsibility at the same time. Last but not least I need to mention our institutions – including our schools, kindergartens, and our university. Also the Hungarian Jewish traditions are really unique, which we try to protect from everyone who wants to change them.
EJP: How do you see the Hungarian Jewry in 5-10 years?
A.H.: We need to solve the previously mentioned problems in 10 years. In order to do so we have to face ourselves honestly. Furthermore we need to solve the social care of the second generation of the Shoah. We need to make sure Jews are protected, develop Jewish religious life and institutions. We won’t get bored.