Blog #1, April 2018
I once had a pen pal from Italy, and we talked about the differences in our handwriting, our favorite foods, and Iron Maiden. I was twelve years old. This experience lasted no longer than a few letters. Other than ice cream and a rather cool European heavy metal band, we didn’t have much in common, so you did not need to be Nostrodomus to predict the early demise of our relationship. I don’t think of this pen pal too often, but as I was traveling to Budapest with twelve Beth Tfiloh students, these memories of a relationship that fizzled fast surfaced. Our students were about to embark on the journey of new relationships, and my hope was that the chance to meet their counterparts in Hungary would allow their connections to last longer, much longer, than that of my pen pal and me.
As we gathered in the departures area of Dulles Airport, I could sense the anticipation and nervousness of the Beth Tfiloh students. For some of them, this was their first international trip, but for all of them, this was their first journey to Budapest. And this visit wasn’t about fun and games (even though there was plenty of fun and games in their future), as this group of students were representing their school and country as part of the Morim Project. They would be spending the better part of the week with students from another Jewish Day School in an exotic Eastern European city, students that they never met before who speak a language that is as foreign as foreign languages come. Yes, they had exchanged a few emails with the Sandor Scheiber students, but that was about it. Their nervousness was real.
When we arrived to Sandor Scheiber, our students were bone-tired and more than a little bit hungry from over twelve hours of constant traveling. I was a bit nervous for them. But within moments our students were chatting and laughing with their counterparts. There was an immediate bond, and you almost couldn’t tell which of the students in the room were from BT and which were from SSG. The excitement and joy was palpable. It was quite an amazing moment.
This bond has continued over the entire trip as our students attended classes, played games, toured the city of Budapest, and spent Shabbat together. It’s obvious that our kids have more in common than just some favorite foods or bands; they share a connection to a Jewish heritage. I watched our students as they formed relationships, real honest-to-Hashem relationships with each other. There was no doubt in my mind that even though they could share their favorite foods or dance to their favorite songs, this connection that the students of Beth Tfiloh and the students of Scheiber Sandor shared to their Jewish heritage deepened due to this face-to-face meeting. I’m excited to see how this new relationship develops, and curious to watch it’s effects on their respective communities.
Saturday and Conclusion
I was full of conflicted emotions on the last day of our program in Budapest. We spent a good portion of the late afternoon and evening on Saturday walking around the city, learning about the history of buildings and the people that lived in them. By the time we got to the controversial World War II monument in Freedom Square, some of us were hungry, some of us were tired, and all of us were cold. Here we were, staring at a statue whose purpose is to historically absolve the Hungarian government of any involvement in the horrors and atrocities of the Second World War while at the same time minimizing the significance of the crimes committed against the country’s Jewish peoples. This monstrosity, erected by Hungary’s current government, is a reminder that we must still be vigilant, as the fight against evil and tyranny is still not over.
We followed this visit by making Havdalah at the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial. It was possibly the most emotional religious ceremony I have ever experienced. It was cold and windy, but we huddled together as Rabbi Soskil led us in prayer. The experience felt like both the ultimate tribute the Jews who were slaughtered on these banks and the ultimate act of resistance against those who committed this horrendous act (and those who would do so again).
Fortunately, our next stop was one that allowed us to warm up, relax a bit, and reflect on the day. As we were taking a boat tour of the Danube river, I settled down a bit and I got to thinking about when I was asked to join this program. I had never been asked to participate in an educational program with such global scope and importance. Accepting the offer meant that I would have to pull myself away from my regular teaching routine and challenge myself as an educator and as a person. Being asked to participate in this program by SOS International and Beth Tfiloh’s Director of Education, Mrs. Zipora Schorr, will go down as a highlight of my career.
Thank Hashem I said yes! Had I not embarked on this journey, I would have never met so many extraordinary people, such as Gergo, an actor and tour guide, who only learned he was Jewish at age 12 and who has been searching for his Jewish identity ever since. I would never have met Mikaela, the archivist from Romania, a country who’s once-thriving Jewish population was devastated by the holocaust and is still struggling to re-establish itself. I would have never been able to establish a connection with the teachers at Scheiber Sándor, nor would a bond exist between me and the young Jewish students who reside in the school’s hallways and classrooms. And I certainly would have not been able to share this most amazing experience with my fellow colleagues of Beth Tfiloh, all who are master teachers and taught me so much on this journey.
This trip has been a dream come true for me. Thank you to Alan and Glynis of SOS International for your passion, leadership and guidance; thank you to my fellow Beth Tfiloh teachers who showed me great kindness and support this past week; thank you to my new colleagues at Scheiber Sándor and all of my new students; and thank you to each and every person I met during my visit to Budapest. I am looking forward to working with you all again in the near future!
It’s not often that I get to attend a Shabbat dinner led by my cohort and friend (and roommate for this trip), Rabbi Mordechai Soskil. An infectious sense of humor and a passion for Judaism are just two aspects of Mordechai’s personality, and the fact that he was leading the service this evening meant that my anticipation was at an all-time high; this was to be only my second-ever Shabbat dinner. I was excited for all the new experiences that we surely coming my way.
Dinner took place at Moishe House, a post-college living space and gathering spot for young Jewish people of Budapest. The apartment exuded the ideals of young adult living…a collection of mismatched furniture pieces, movie posters on the walls, and of course a reptile in a cage (in this case a chameleon in a cage. Everyone was friendly, welcoming, and immediately personable. As dinner progressed, we took the time to learn a bit about each other, and what I learned about some of our young guests was fascinating. It seems to be a thing here in Hungary for Jewish parents to hide their families’ heritage from their kids. The reasons are understandable, but the resulting suppression of culture and identity is heartbreaking. A number of those present at the Shabbat table did not learn of their heritage until their teenage years (one young lady did not learn she was Jewish until she was 18 years of age). But they were here now, as was I, experiencing a tradition that has taken place every Friday night for almost 6000 years. And what a raucous, wonderful time it was! Rabbi Soskil led us through prayers, improv games, and even a challenging number game that involved high-level mathematics (OK, it was rather high-level for me!).
The significance of the evening did not elude me. In a city where it’s easy to get caught up in the darkness of past, it’s so very important to light the Shabbat candles and celebrate the many joyful aspects of the Jewish tradition.
As teachers, we can easily become attached to our school community, and I know I speak for the rest of my cohorts when I say that we were missing the Scheiber Sándor community immensely on Thursday morning. But now it was time to explore the wider Jewish community of Budapest in earnest. As a distinct contrast to the vibrant, noisy, and energetic environment of both Scheiber Sándor and Balint Haz, we visited the Újpest Old Age Home and Israel Sela, a residence for those with special needs. It was a privilege to sit with some of the residents of Újpest, as they told stories of their time in the Budapest ghetto, the holocaust, and life under communism. At Israel Sela, we joined the residents in song and dance as they participated in their weekly music lesson. This joyful experience was humbling, as the residents laughed and danced and sang both for us and with us, and they even prepared crafts, songs and poems specifically for our visit. Some of the residents held our hands, looked us in the eye, and asked us not to go, wishing we could stay longer.
Later the same day we explored Hungary’s past relationship with communism and Soviet occupation. The place was called Memento Park. It was a frigid, grey day, and frozen fog held tight to both grass and brush. As we stood surrounded by the statues, carvings, and monuments that once stood watch over the country, it wasn’t too hard to imagine the heavy, cold weight of tyranny that pressed down on the people of this country for over forty years.
Next, we visited a very small synagogue called Teleki Téri, a small synagogue referred to as a shteible. Shuls like this one once proliferated the Jewish neighborhoods of this city, but Teleki is the last functioning synagogue of its kind in the city. Brothers Gabor and Andris are doing everything they can to keep this tradition alive. Here was another contrast, as the vibrant, youthful energy of the shul community helped us to shake off the starkness of Memento Park.
Later at dinner, we met Linda Vero-Ban of the Frankel Shul community. She discussed with us the successes and struggles that she and her husband experienced as leaders of a family-centered shul in Budapest.
This day gave me hope. It’s not easy to coax flowers from the cold, hard soil. Old traditions are not always tended to in this fast-paced, changing world. And it’s easy to forget those who exist in the fringes of our society. But there are Jews in this city who are working tirelessly to rebuild this once-thriving community, to keep traditions alive, and care for all its members.
“If you make music and no one listens to it, is there any reason to make music?”
This was a question I received from one of the students at Scheiber Sándor. It’s not too dissimilar from the question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” It’s an amusing postulate to discuss here in America, but one that holds significant gravitas when discussed in Hungary. This is a country with a sluggish economy, a high emigration rate, and an increasing amount of antisemitic rhetoric. It seems that the Hungarians are abandoning ship at an alarming rate, leaving the youth of this country with an an uncertain future.
I am passionate about teaching the arts. An arts education can give students a voice, and young adults, if nothing else, want to be heard. Art is communication. It’s more than just a form of expression, it’s an exchange of ideas. Whether it’s painting, dancing, singing, etc., it’s never a one-way street. Artists need feedback, especially our young students who are just learning how to express themselves. So let’s look at this question again. Is it worth expressing yourself if no one is listening? This particular student felt defeated, hopeless. From his point of view, no one seemed to care about him or his music. He felt as if it wasn’t even worth trying to create, express his ideas, communicate.
My recommendation to him was to reach out to an online community of musicians who were creating similar music. The community is a global one, one that includes composers from just about every country in the world, and I assured him that they would be very open to listening to his music. At the very least, he would be part of this larger, global community. Immediately his demeanor changed, and there was a spark of hope where moments before there seemed to be none.
This exchange clarified something for me; I am a part of a global group of Jewish educators who have come to Budapest to exchange ideas, to listen, and to communicate with the Jewish community of this city. Where once we were two separate communities, now we are one. I am very much looking forward to see where this collaboration takes both Scheiber Sándor and Beth Tfiloh.
If you are curious to listen to some of the music this student from Scheiber Sándor has decided to share with the world, he has since set up a page on Bandcamp. I encourage you to give it a listen: https://dirtywhite.bandcamp.com/
As an arts educator, I am familiar with how the arts can facilitate a connection between human beings, both as individuals and communities.
Here in Budapest, many of the students do not speak the same language as me. The older students have a basic, working knowledge of the English language, but the younger students mostly do not. While visiting the Scheiber Sandor art classes this morning, I may or may not have been able to talk one-on-one with the students, but I could easily tell, from their artwork, what they were trying to say. Regardless of their talent or skill level, there was a self-expression in their artwork that could not be missed. The same was true in my numerous music composition classes; whether or not we were able to understand each other verbally, the results were the same…musical soundscapes that expressed their emotions and communicated their thoughts and feelings.
This mission of this trip is not to just have us teach lessons in a Jewish school in Budapest, but to also experience other aspects of the Jewish culture here in the city. To this end, later in the day we visited Balint Haz, a Jewish Community center in the downtown Pest area. During this visit, something amazing happened to me. We were asked to interacted with a group of very young kids who were in an after school program. None of the small children knew English. I noticed a boy that was sitting by himself at a table, drawing and coloring, not interacting with the other kids in the room, so I sat down with him. He seemed nervous and didn’t want to interact with me.
He was drawing designs on his paper and I thought he was trying to write letters, or maybe he was just scribbling? I wasn’t sure. But as he kept drawing, I realized he was drawing snails. SNAILS! Immediately got excited and started pointing at his drawings saying, “Snails! Snails!” He goes, “Chiga!” I happened to have pictures of snails on my phone, so I pulled out my phone and showed him pictures of the snails and he identified them as “chiga!” He then showed me how to draw the snails in his style, told me his name, showed me how to write it in cursive, and so on and so on. A connection was made. And it all started with a drawing by a 7 1/2 year old child.
Even at a young age, the arts can break down walls and build bridges between individuals, and through those individuals, communities. And that’s what is happening here, now, in Budapest. Our team is breaking down walls and building bridges between our two communities. And, as an arts educator, I am find myself so fortunate to be here at this moment!
For my first official blog post of my SOS International’s Morim Project, I could tell you how privileged I felt to be in a school in a foreign country teaching classes about music composition, or the camaraderie I experienced with the other teachers at Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium. But what stood out the most was the very first interaction that I had with a student of this institution.
Shorty after arriving, I was taken on tour by a Grade 13 student named Anna. She had many things to say about Scheiber Sandor, but what stood out to me is how she described her school as feeling very much like a family; while other schools may be bigger and fancier, she clearly believes this school’s main purpose is to nourish the soul of its student body.
This comment surprised me a bit, as it sounded rather profound and earnest coming from a student. Here is a young lady who understands her school’s mission. This isn’t just about passing state-sponsored mandatory exams, this is about creating human beings, about being there for your community and each other.
Immediately I understood what she was implying, as I work at a school whose mission is not so different. This reminded me that what we as teachers do is important work, and when we are validated by the words of a student, it hits home even more.
Personally, when I arrived in Budapest I wasn’t completely sure of what to expect from this journey, but after my conversation with Anna, I knew, at the very least, that the teachers at Scheiber Sandor and my colleagues from Beth Tfiloh are all coming together in this experience with the same mission in our hearts. I am very excited to see what will blossom from this partnership!