Natalie Levitan – History

Final Reflections

November 20, 2016

We are currently sitting in the Munich Airport, waiting for our connecting flight back to the States.  We have had Shabbat to reflect on our time here in Budapest and we all feel as if we have gained so much.  While our original goal in coming here seemed unclear to many of us, we all feel as if we have walked away enriched by our experience.  It is rare to visit an international city and spend so much time with the locals.  We all feel so fortunate to have made the connections we made at the Lauder school.  Everywhere we went, we had the opportunity to hear personal stories and be exposed to differing points about Hungarian, American and Jewish life.  While many of the stories reinforced the narrative of the “sad, Hungarian, Jew” (as one of the Moshie House residents stated), it made us all realize that the community is just beginning to come to terms with its history and it is a slow process.  

Friday we taught our last classes and said goodbye to our partner teachers.  I had the fortunate experience of teaching a 9th grade ELITE class and shared the lesson about Holidays with them.  They were engaged and seemed to enjoy the lesson. My last class was a group of 7th grade students.  While I have thoroughly enjoyed all the students I have met at Lauder, I have to say the 7th grade greeted me with the most amount of excitement.  They were so excited to practice their english and share all the details about their school.  I felt like I finally understood a little more about the way the school works.  The students apply in 1st (or 3rd?) grade for the English track program.  About 15-20 students are chosen for the track based on their English ability at that time (so kids with native english speaking parents have the advantage).  By the time these students are in 7th grade they are reading US grade level english books – with the parents of some of the students being their teachers.  When they reach 9th grade every student takes the ELITE classes.  There are 15 sessions that are English based and then they have other classes.  Then they repeat the 9th grade year with the gov’t required classes.  In 9th grade, students are required to choose another language (Hebrew, Spanish or German).  Most students choose spanish.  The students start school at the age of 7, so by the time they are Seniors and have done 9th grade twice, they are 20 years old!!!!  No wonder they all seemed so mature.  

The last day at Lauder was filled with enriching experiences. We had the opportunity to sit with the Headmaster for an hour to discuss the mission of the school and learn more about the programs they run.  We met with the Israeli Ambassador and had the opportunity to ask questions.  The Ambassador did not shy away from sharing his opinion – about US politics as well as his feeling about the politically appointed US Ambassador Bell.  

We also got to enjoy the art exhibit Ben and the Lauder students had been working on all week.  He was very proud of the work they had accomplished in such a short amount of time and for the rest of us it was nice to see the students that we had all briefly met express themselves in such a personal way.  

After saying goodbye to our colleagues we were ready to begin the Shabbat.  For some that meant going back to the hotel, for others that meant some much deserved free time to explore the city.  Tori and I opted to spend our afternoon at the local Bath – Szechenyi Baths.  The baths are hundreds of years old and a popular local and tourist attraction.  There are about 20 baths to enjoy – including one very large bath outside.  These hot tub like baths are based on the original thermal baths from the area.  The building is grand and it took over two hours just to explore the building and each bath.  It was very therapeutic both mentally and physically.  I couldn’t help but look at the huge structure and wonder what it must have looked like over the years.  Yet another example of the rich history of Budapest.  

Saturday was a continuation of our time to relax.  I took the opportunity to go for a run from Pest over the bridge to Buda.  It was very clear very quickly that people do not run in the streets of Budapest.  Many people were looking around me like something was wrong and I was running from something.  But crossing the bridge was beautiful.  

Saturday for lunch, Ben and I were invited over to Ildi’s house with Cili.  It was a great opportunity to have lunch at Ildi’s house and have a relaxed conversation about life in Budapest.  Ildi is an artist and has a beautiful apartment, covered with tapestries, instruments and artwork.  Learning about the school programs they go to and the opportunities given to the teachers was enlightening.  They use the city and surrounding countries to enhance their classroom learning.  We talked in more detail about what being Jewish means to the students.  Many of the students consider themselves atheists, so they do not identify as being Jewish in religious terms, but more in cultural terms.  Most of the students celebrate Christmas which is seen as more of a national holiday than a religious holiday.  The students do not mind exploring their Jewish identity, but they do not want to connect thier identiies only to the horrors of thier history and have it define them in that way.  They struggle the most with Holocaust memorial day in their school. Most of the students are strongly connected to the Holocaust having a family member (likely a grandparent or great-grandparent) who was in Budapest at the time of the Holocaust.  

Our last afternoon in Budapest was spent on a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter.  Our guide had numerous great stories to share with us and was quite blunt with her portrayal of many historical events.  We walked along the streets near our hotel and learned about the righteous gentiles in the city who helped jewish members of the community escape the Holocaust.  We walked past a large orthodox synagogue that is no longer in use.  We saw a statue of Ronald Reagan who was being honored for his role in ending the Cold War.  We walked past the American Embassy which is heavily guarded – a new security measure put in place after WWII.  The only other embassy so heavily protected is the Israeli embassy.  

On our tour we stopped at a Holocaust Memorial that has drawn much controversy.  The Memorial holds the German population responsible for the Holocaust and does not hold the Hungarian population responsible at all for the devastation of the Holocaust.  The current government is responsible for this memorial and it is again a reminder of the nationalization of the history that is occurring in Hungary today.  

We ended our tour by the Danube, by the Shoe Memorial.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis rounded up the Jewish citizens of Budapest and lined them up by the Danube and shot them.  The previous government set up a memorial to remember the victims of the Holocaust by placing bronze shoes by the edge of the river.  It was a very emotional moment as we walked amongst the shoes and imagined the chaos and emotion of the individuals on the bank of the river.  We were able to conduct our Havdalah service at the memorial, once again showing the contrast between what was and what is.  People being persecuted for being Jewish with those, both Jews and non-Jews proudly participating in Jewish ceremony.  

In the end, there was an immense feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the experiences we had here in Budapest.  Spending time with Cili and the students was one of the most enriching experiences.  The reality is that people are people, teenagers are teenagers.  I had one students approach me to tell me he was asked to live in LA for a year, and he was nervous about it.  When I asked him why, he said he had never gone to school with anyone of a different race than himself.  He didn’t know what to say or do.  My advice to him was to connect in the ways students here connect – music, social media – that in the end, teenagers are teenagers.  Girls were crying in the bathrooms, babies were crying on the streets.  We all feel the same emotions.

But one thing that we as Americans do not face is the burden of our history.  While we have parts of our history that we are not proud of and need to account for, and are still dealing with today, we are not actively trying to rewrite that history.  We do not have to look at another group of people simultaneously as our liberators and our oppressors, as the Hungarians do with the Russians. We are fairly far removed personally from the Holocaust.  We can openly practice our religion and state our beliefs without looking over our shoulder.  So while many of us are rightly concerned about the protection of our civil rights and liberties under a new government, I think or at least I hope, that we can also all recongize that we have traditons and rules of law that have evolved to protect us and allow us to express ourselves in a way that we feel comfortable.  

I look forward to our continued relationship with the Lauder School and having Cili visit us at the Day School with her students.  

Day 4 -November 17, 2016

My morning at the Lauder school started off with a concert from a former student of Lauder.  Tamas Juhasz was born blind and was determined from very early on to not let his disability define him.  He was focused from a young age on doing whatever anyone else did, and not allowing his disability to get in his way.  The students were very taken with his presentation and really enjoyed his music.  While his presentation was in Hungarian, it was a pleasure to hear his music and to see his passion for music and storytelling.  

In the afternoon we went to the Scheiber High School.  Scheiber is a Jewish Day School as well, but is a public school, so anyone can attend and they do not have to pay additional funds to attend (Lauder is apparently a public school as well, but the students pay to attend the school, making it a more homogeneous population).  We were immediately impressed with the Jewish influence/atmosphere at the Scheiber school.  The students all take Hebrew from a young age, they take Jewish History classes and the 10th grade takes a trip to Israel.  So while the students are not all Jewish, it is known throughout the community that this is a Jewish Day School.  The differences between the two schools was very interesting.  At Scheiber, there is not the relaxed, student empowered feeling that there is at Lauder.  The students stand up when a teacher enters the room and they call the teacher by their surnames.  We talked about the US elections and the students all asked excellent questions, showing a great interest in what happened and why it happened.  We compared their political system to our system and their parties to our parties.  There were many comparisons to be made with their current conservative government and our incoming government.  I was impressed with the students critical thinking skills – one student asked me to present the point of view of a Trump supporter on immigration.  

After our visit to Scheiber, we walked to the Jewish Hospital/Nursing home.  The Hospital has 350 beds and 9 doctors.  The youngest Dr. was over 50 years old.  While Hungary has an excellent training program for Drs, the newly trained doctors do not stay in Hungary once they graduate because the pay is not good.  You actually need to bribe the Drs to get service, unless you go to a private Dr.  The residents at the nursing home are very lonely because their families typically live abroad.  All of the residents we saw lived in a hospital room with anywhere from 1-8 other people in the same room.  The residents enjoyed visiting and we were delighted to visit with them.  

From the nursing home, we went to Hero’s Square.  Hero’s Square was built in 1896 to celebrate the country’s 1000th birthday.  It was built during the reign of the Habsburg Empire, but was not completed until after WWI, in 1929, when Hungary was part of Austria-Hungary Empire.  The monument highlights Hungary’s heros – from St. Istvan – the political leader as well as the leader of the Church to more recent Hungarians like Lajos Kossuth, a revolutionary leader who traveled the world to gain international support for the Hungarian revolution.  Kossuth approached the US Congress for assistance with the revoltuion, and today has a statue in the US Capitol, only one of 3 non-Americans in the building.  

Behind Hero’s Square is the Wallenberg Memorial.  Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat to Hungary who saved approximately 25,000 jews from the Holocaust by putting them in safe houses around the city of Budapest.  He was eventually arrested by the Soviets and died.

Not far from the Wallenberg Memorial is a plaque commemorating Tom Lantos.

At dinner we had the pleasure of meeting with Vero-Ban Linda, a local children’s author and organizer of the BBYO Hungary.  She shared her story and mission with us – telling us about the Jewish Summer camp she and her husband (a Rabbi at a local synagogue) run.  Her story reinforced all the other stories we have heard all week – about young students not finding out until they are teenagers that they are Jewish.  And then the big question continues to be, “So what?”.  Young members of the Jewish community do not understand what it means to be Jewish – how does that impact their identity?  Part of what they are concerned about is that being outwardly Jewish still feels uncomfortable in many places in Eastern Europe.  As expressed earlier, one main way the Jewish community continues to highlight their community is through liberalism and education, hence the reason many in the community send their children to Lauder, even though they may not actually tell their children they are Jewish.  

One of the main takeaways of today seems to be that the students are very proud of their city, but unfortunately many leave the city/country for University and do not return. This negatively impacts so many aspects of current Hungarian life and stalls the efforts for revitalization of both the jewish community and the larger Hungarian community.  

Day 3

Today I got to meet with the 11th graders for a double period (1 hr 45 min).  We discussed the goals of NATO, the current issues around NATO and whether or not NATO is still an effective alliance. After providing the students with basic background knowledge, the students were given roles of major stakeholders in the debate of the viability of NATO – PM Ogden, Trump, Putin, Refugee representative, Poland, Balkan states.  The students took 20 min to research their positions and then began a lively roundtable discussion presented from their specific points of view.  It was great to see the students assume these roles, especially since the roles clearly did not fit in with their personal beliefs.  The student who took the role of Trump reveled in his role – being very loud, charismatic and using very simple language to communicate his point.  I was once again struck by how much the students were in tune with US politics.  I was pleased that every student participated and in the end understood NATO’s changing role in the world.  It was interesting for me to see how the students perceived Russia’s aggression, and why they thought it was essential for the US to continue to be a part of NATO in order for Russia to continue to be held at bay.  I did a similar project with the Senior class and they came to the conclusion that even if NATO member countries could not contribute the required 2% to NATO, the US should still contribute what they can, because in the end it shouldn’t be about money if people’s livelihoods are at stake. The liberal ideology of the students is very clear.  They do not support the platforms/reforms of their current government and they value the protection of human rights and civil rights.

I then gave the students 15 minutes at the end of class to write letters to my students at JDS.  They were very excited about this opportunity and are looking forward to hearing back from JDS students.  

After spending the morning at the Lauder school, we headed to Central Europe University where one of our colleagues gave a lesson about the origin of the Hebrew language as a living language.  It was interesting to me to consider the debate between having Hebrew be a sacred language used only in synagogue vs being a language that unites a group of people and is used as a tool to unite that group.  We had a nice discussion about what bonds a culture – and how essential is language to that bond.  It gave new meaning to me about the purpose of hebrew being taught at JDS.  

From CEU, we headed to the Dohany Synagogue. We spent the first hour helping the museum curator find the appropriate wording for English translation for the permanent exhibit.  We spent our time thinking about what would a non-Jewish person automatically know/recognize about Jewish culture and objects (kippah, yamulke or skullcap) vs a Jewish individual.  As you can imagine with 10 people sitting around the table all focused on the best choice for one word description, it was quite difficult to find consensus, BUT we did it!  

We then took our time to tour the Hungarian Jewish Museum as well as the Dohany Synagogue.  The synagogue, as stated earlier, is the largest synagogue in Europe.  It seats 3000 people.  We were all surprised to hear that it is full during the High Holidays.  The synagogue’s architect had built a number of churches in the area, so the synagogue has many church-like features, including an organ that, while electric, is played during services.  The synagogue is more orthodox in many ways though – with the women sitting separate from the men and no female rabbis.  

After the tour, we had our first “free” evening of the trip.  A group of us walked to the Festival area to enjoy the local culture – we tasted chimney cake, warm ciders/mulled wine and walked along the shops.  It was nice to have some time to just walk leisurely and relax with my colleagues…and eat a little chocolate.  : )

Day 2 Nov 15, 2016

Our second day in Budapest.  We started our day at the Lauder School. Today I worked with a 9th grade class (because this is their 2nd 9th grade year, they are the age of US 10th graders).  There were 4 students in a class of 30 that had some connection to the US (parent lived there or they had lived there) and maybe 5-6 of the students had been to the United States.  Some of the students in this class were familiar with the music from Hamilton and enjoyed learning the meaning behind the lyrics.  Due to the students being older, feeling more confident with their English and having some students with a connection to the US, more students were actively engaged in the lesson, asking questions and freely sharing their opinions about the “idea of America”.  

My second class was a group of 11th graders.  Immediately it was clear that these students were intellectually mature, thoughtful and quite opinionated.  I presented them with a lesson on the US election – including our process, candidates and party platforms.  The students were very well versed in US politics.  Hearing their thoughts and beliefs about our system and politicians was fascinating.  The students believed that the US didn’t really have a clear choice in their candidates since, in their words, Trump was a racist, sexist, climate change denier bully while Hillary was a corrupt politician who would never be able to bring change.  When I asked them about their news sources they claimed they were reading the same things I was reading – stating they had gotten their information from social media.  It made me think about the power of social media, and how here in the US we are all guilty of reading only views that support our own beliefs, and yet those same messages are being sent abroad.  The class had watched Trump’s acceptance speech live in school.  They were not impressed.  We spent much of our class time discussing the impact of Trump’s win.  I shared with them some of the recent events that have occurred close to home, including the swastikas on the school buildings in my neighborhood.  We also spent a little time discussing the similarities in our governments’ right-wing approaches to immigration.  Most impressive to me was the view the students had of the US being at the forefront of global policy and the impact US policy decisions (esp in terms of global issues like climate change) have on the international community.  

The relaxed atmosphere at the Lauder School continues to amaze me.  The students call their teachers by their first names.  They have coffee stations set up in the back of classrooms and they have a couch/lounge area in most classrooms.  The students use language in the classroom that would never be acceptable in a US classroom and they do not hold back on their opinions at all, but it is also important to note that everyone respects that about each other.  There is no need for “safe spaces” or so it would appear, because everyone respects that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  

The afternoon was spent touring Budapest.  We spent the first part of the afternoon at the Parliament building.  The Parliament building is part of the city skyline along the Danube.  It has a Neo-Gothic base with a Neo-Renaissance dome.  Inside the building we were brought up a 133-step staircase with gilded ceilings throughout.  At the top of the staircase is a large room that houses the Hungarian Crown, along with 2 guards who watch over the crown at all times.  No pictures allowed…We then walked to the legislative chamber, again very ornate in design.  This is where the Parliament meets. The Parliament has over 700 rooms, and was clearly built in a time period when Hungary was much larger.  Today, only about 200 representatives work in the building.  Another reminder of Hungary’s history and how much it has changed over time.

Our next stop was the Opera House.  Considered one of Europe’s finest opera houses, the Opera House, along with the Parliament, is filled with Hungarian pride.  It was built when Budapest was co-capital of the Habsburg Empire.  Emperor Franz Josef contributed half of the funds to build the Opera House, on the condition that it be smaller than the opera house in Vienna. Franz Josef visited the Opera House only once, apparently upset that, while smaller than the one in Vienna, it was definitely more beautiful – or so the Hungarian legend goes.  We had the pleasure of hearing a mini-concert at the end of our tour.  

The evening ended with a visit to the local JCC.  We met with the director of the JCC Zsuzsanna Fritz.  The JCC is continually striving to identify members of the Jewish community in Budapest.  Again we were told stories by both Zsuzanna and the Headmaster of the Lauder School about their own path of learning about their Jewish identities.  Both individuals did not discover they were Jewish until they were teenagers.  Even then, it was not discussed amongst family members what it meant to be Jewish.  The Jewish community in Budapest has been fragmented by the losses during the Holocaust and the oppression during communism.  Members of the older generation are afraid to discuss their lineage and/or want to forget about their lineage.  Trying to revive the Jewish community in Budapest is a difficult task, especially when the individuals do not even identify themselves as being Jewish – at least in the religious sense.  To many, being Jewish means being a liberal intellectual.  That was one of the founding tenants of the Lauder school and seems to be an important value in the students lives there as well.  

As we continue our tour of Budapest, we are all struck by the tormented history of the city.  The Germans blew up the bridges of the city as they crossed them so that the Soviets could not cross the Danube and get to the Germans.

The Soviets were seen as the liberators of the Hungarian people, which is complex for many to internalize because so many of the people are not proud of their Jewish heritage because it is connected so closely to the Holocaust and/or Sovient oppression.  

Day 1 Nov 14, 2016

We arrived yesterday and after a little rest, took a walk to orient ourselves to the city of Budapest.  We were able to walk from our hotel past the Dohany Street Synagogue (Great Synagogue).  It is the 2nd largest synagogue in the world.  

The synagogue is near where the Jewish Ghetto was during WWII and has a mass grave around the exterior where the Nazis murdered approximately 130,000 jews in 3 months time.  When learning about Hungarian Jewish History I am struck by how today the small Jewish community (maybe 0.5% of the population) is working to remember its history.  This is contrasted with the fact that many people in Hungary are unaware of their true lineage.  Parents do not tell children they are jewish sometimes until they are on their deathbed.  Many of the students at the Lauder school do not openly discuss (if they even know) their own lineage. So while it is a Jewish Day School it is not known what percent of their population is Jewish.  It is also a reminder that, like in Poland and other Eastern European nations, a community once destroyed by the Holocaust is rebuilding and working to actively memorialize the events that happened just 70 years ago.  

We were able to walk to the Festival last evening as well.  The Festival really gave us such a lovely taste of Hungarian culture – the food, music and shops.  While the Festival only happens at the Holiday time, it clearly was a central community event.  

This morning we departed for the Lauder school, excited to meet our colleagues and the students.  We were greeted with such warmth, immediately making us all feel very welcomed.  The student body exhibited confidence, genuine excitement for meeting us and great intellectual curiosity.  Touring the facilities allowed us to identify the goals of the school.  The hallways are lined with pictures of senior classes, there is a small farm down one of the hallways (complete with chickens and rabbits), the backyard includes a very large, well thought out playground that includes mini-trampolines and a ropes course and there is a coffeehouse for the students.  Students have 10 minutes of passing after 40 minute classes.  They call teachers by their first name.  Teachers receive a complimentary massage 2x a week and the school pays for a private health insurance because the gov’t supplied health insurance is not very good.  The new principal of the school is a veteran teacher of the school and believes that “Trust” is what makes a school great – trust in the teachers allowing them the freedom to do what they want to make their classrooms successful.  The teachers thoroughly enjoy working at the school and there is a feeling of excitement and engagement all around the school.  

At the Lauder school, we had the opportunity to meet the American Ambassador to Hungary.  Meeting with Ambassador Bell was a highlight for many of us.  She shared with us some of the agenda items she is working on during her time here in Hungary.  She has a goal to visit each of Hungary’s 10 National Parks, she is working to stand up to the government’s current position on migration, she is working to understand more about human trafficking and cyber terrorism.  She discussed her position on current US politics as well as the current gov’t in Hungary.  It was encouraging to hear her talk about what messages are being sent about US values through US diplomats and how the diplomats go about sharing those messages.  

Teaching the 9th grade ELIT class (1 of 2 ninth grade years all students take to learn english) was an interesting experience.  The students have more knowledge of US History than I would have expected – knowing some of our key presidents and understanding some of our major social movements.  I had the opportunity to share a lesson with them about what is “America” and what does it mean.  We talked about how America is an idea, not just a country, we discussed the founding of our nation through the Hamilton soundtrack and finished by looking at the Declaration of Independence to see how we wrote our ideals into our founding documents. The students were hesitant to engage with the content, but enjoyed the song and asked very interesting questions about US history and culture.  

The afternoon was spent touring Castle Hill.  We spent time in Matthias Church, a church that has been built and destroyed numerous times.  The Church is called Matthias Church after the Renaissance king who was married there.  Most impressive to me about the church is that the interior was wallpapered with gilded pages from a Hungarian textbook.  

The views from Castle Hill are breathtaking, especially the view of the Parliament and Chain Bridge.  

Budapest is beautiful city with a deep history.  It has been ruled by the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Soviets.  It only gained independence in 1989 and is still working to put together its own proud history of Hungarian heros and leaders.  It is working to gain a sense of nationalism in a world moving quickly towards globalization.  It is struggling with finding its own balance between being a sovereign nation while being a part of the EU.  

Day one was full of learning and experiences – cultural, political and educational.  We have all already gained so much to bring back home with us.

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