Mark Shpall – American Government and History

What an amazing experience it has been in Budapest. As my time here quickly comes to a close, I am starting to reflect and understand the importance of our time here at the Lauder Javne High School and with the larger Jewish community in this city.

In terms of the teaching, it has been wonderful to see the interest that these Hungarian children have about the United States. From wanting to understand the approach of President Trump, to how our government works, how a President can win without winning the popular vote, to intricacies about redistricting and Gerrymandering, these teenagers have been engaged and curious. It really made me understand the concept that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. Everything my country does or says has a huge impact on the lives of people around the world. This was an important lesson for me, and hopefully for our country’s leaders as well, that we have a responsibility beyond our borders. We heard about the importance of our leaders actions directly when the Charge d Affairs for American in Hungary (essentially, our deputy ambassador, since a new ambassador has yet to be appointed), spoke to us about the relationship between Hungary and the USA.

Beyond the teaching, learning about Jewish life in Budapest and Hungary has been a real education. From working with the last remaining, functioning shteibel (small prayer room/group) to meeting with Holocaust survivors at an old age home, we had the unique opportunity to see how the Jewish community was so deeply affected by the Shoah but also how it is rising from the ashes of the Holocaust to try and renew and revive itself.

I look forward to our relationship with Lauder Javne High School continuing and deepening in the years to come. I hope we are able to welcome teachers and students from the school to de Toledo High School and know that together, we can strengthen Jewish life, culture and practice here and at home.

Welcome to Budapest

My sense of excitement and wonder had been at increasingly high levels as this journey approached. What was the country like? The people? The Lauder school that I would be teaching at? In addition, while our teaching does not start until tomorrow, I have already been overwhelmed with my 48 hours here.

We arrived Friday, late morning, and after a beautiful drive around the city, where our gracious host, Alan, gave us the scenic tour to the hotel, pointing out the various sites along the way, we arrived at our hotel early in the afternoon. Having learned how to avoid jet lag from my numerous trips to Israel as well as on the March of the Living, I made sure not to lay on the bed, not even for a moment, for fear that I would immediately fall asleep and never kick that pesky jet lag! Instead, after a refreshing shower to wash off the 15+ hours of travel, I walked, without any direction or destination in mind.

What I found, quickly, was that we were staying in the city center of Pest (the city of Buda is across the Danube from us), and that we are in the middle of a vibrant, European city. I found architecture that was amazing to look at. I stumbled across the Great Synagogue, which was a sight to behold. I kept walking and ended up on the Chain Bridge crossing the Blue Danube (it really was not that blue that day). The beauty of the city, the crisp air, and the ability to walk a few miles and stretch my legs, made it a great way to start my week here.

Where we are staying and structure of the city has also allowed me and my colleagues to walk the streets from morning until night, exploring the city, the beautiful bridges, the food, the coffee (always a favorite of mine) and the street food (especially the famous Hungarian chimneys  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCrt%C5%91skal%C3%A1cs).

On Saturday, I took the opportunity with JB and our host, Alan, to attend Shabbat services at the shtiebel congregation. We had a lovely walk and were embraced by the small, but vibrant community in this one room shul. The t’fillah was incredibly authentic and spiritual as we prayed with Jews not only from Hungary, but Jews from Italy, England and other European countries who either lived in or were visiting Budapest. That evening, all the teachers from de Toledo High School, went for a later dinner at a beautiful and remarkable restaurant that was right next to the Budapest Opera House (a magnificent building!).

Today, Sunday, we met an amazing tour guide, Agi, who made the 6 hours of touring feel like 30 minutes. From walking us through the Dohany Great Synagogue (http://www.greatsynagogue.hu/gallery_syn.html), to touring us around the amazing sites of Budapest, we learned not only about the Jewish presence and influence throughout the centuries, but also the wider Hungarian history, much of it marked by unsuccessful revolts, that characterizes this country.

To end our day, we finally met our Hungarian counterparts from the Lauder Javne High School who we will be working with this coming week. After spending time creating the lesson plans, PowerPoints, and videos about American government that I want to share with these students, it is exciting to get to start this part of our journey here in Hungary. The teachers we met over dinner were warm, welcoming and made us feel at home. For me, it was great to finally meet my counterpart, Csilla, who had a fascinating story of studying in the South of England and meeting her husband there. Interestingly enough, when Csilla spoke about her time in England, she slipped into a remarkable English accent. The dinner left me excited and energized, waiting for my first day of teaching.

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