Last September, when our Budapest-bound group met for the first time, I realized that although I was being invited because of my skill as an educator, this trip featured a strong Jewish focus on cultural renewal.
I remember feeling a bit odd, cognizant that I was the only non Jewish person going. Why did they want me? How did I fit?
Some background. My father’s mother was possibly Jewish, although we have only circumstantial evidence. Regardless, I certainly wasn’t raised Jewish (Roman Catholic), and by strict definition, that would make my father Jewish, but not me because my mother is Italian (very very Italian).
Still, I have worked for the past 11 years in Jewish education, five years at an Orthodox school, and the rest at de Toledo. Still — renewal of Jewish life in central Europe? How could that be my mission?
I’ve learned that my not being Jewish is not a factor for SOSInternational. Glynis said to me if DT trusted me, they trusted me. But I do wonder, does anyone spend a moment imagining what I’m thinking when the goy is tasked with helping a shteibel or asked to wear a kippa.
My friend Roger says I’m a Jew because I wrestle with Jewish problems. My friend Ari says I’m a Jew because I can articulate the beauty of the Torah. My friend Ron says I understand Mussar better than he does and he introduced it to me.
My Rabbi friend Devin, who calls me the prophet (he sees me dressed in rags, shaking my shepherd’s cane, admonishing the royals for their blindness to what is deep and eternally true), opines that it is a real issue for Jews to decide what do with people who “carry the seed of Israel.”
This is the issue Hungary now wrestles with. This is the issue I wrestle with. And in a metaphoric way, I think we all do.
Since I’ve returned, people have asked me about the experience, and the line I’ve repeated with significance: “I found my inner Hungarian Jew.” Now after a few days of reflection, I think I understand what that means.
I honor the sacred. My ratzon drives me to dream of a world where the human connection to the sacred engenders a new era. If understanding Judaism helps people live within something sacred, then maybe the ephemeral walls of us and them can be seen for the phantoms they are.
In Hungary, the boundaries of the country have shifted with wars. Who is us and who is them? What was once settled by language and then by tribal affiliation and nationalism can evolve toward something more from the soul: a life of courage, creativity and compassion. This is our destiny.
I honor the sacred. The freedom that was stolen by the totalitarians, the dignity that is profaned by lies, the right to learn that is limited by political agendas.
I honor the sacred, the human soul within me that has wept from anxiety and fear that I know is within anyone and everyone whose eyes now sweep upon these very words.
I’m done with walls and borders and all racism. I dream of the new day when we can all find our inner Hungarian Jew.
Sometimes in the US, it feels as if real change is not possible. Sometimes it seems things are the way they are and there’s not much one person can do.
But being here has made it clear to me that is absolutely not true. When people can be herded from their homes and murdered and dumped into the river despite having spent hundreds of years living here, as Hungarian as the people pulling the triggers, clearly change is possible. When a major world power can fall like an old brick wall to usher in a new era of liberal openness, clearly change is possible.
Today we met with Linda Ban, who has helped usher in amazing changes since 1990 for the Jewish community here. She has initiated growth like the founding of Hungary’s BBYO that people just a few years prior would have proclaimed impossible.
It just doesn’t seem feasible that one person alone can really make an impact on people’s lives. But then you learn about Raoul Wallenberg, who served as the Swedish Ambassador during World War Two here in Budapest and is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. One person!
I always tell my students that very few people remember who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. But truly help someone in need and they will remember you forever.
But this isn’t about being remembered. This is realizing that the world is large and often cruel, yet one person’s ratzon can change everything.
I look at Alan Reinitz and how he teamed up with Glynis Smith to create SOS International. This organization strives not only to renew Jewish life in central Europe but to transform people’s existences. People like me.
Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Need evidence? Come to Budapest.
Blog # 3
Best classes yet today at school.
Had a double class period with a group of students who do not like to write. Talked a lot about why writing is important in many ways beyond the reasons they had heard before, stressing the personal benefits most of all.
But the best part of today was the team teaching with my counterpart, Judith Markos. We have caught on to each other’s styles and ways and even after just a few days can find ways to augment and enhance what the other is saying.
This is new for me, as I have worked closely with colleagues before and even created integrated curriculum, but this is real team teaching, and I’m fortunate to have been paired with such an excellent educator. I truly hope she has the opportunity to come to our school in America so we can work together again.
I’m finding my way around school with more ease and around the city too. It’s hard to believe it’s only been five days. I do l love it here.
Our schedule included community service today and it does again tomorrow too. This is worthwhile and rewarding, but honestly, I could use the rest more than anything. That’s important feedback I need to give. The schedule is overpacked. Great stuff, but just a bit too much. Maybe I’m just getting old.
Blog # 2
Today was the first day with the kids at Lauder.
But first we heard an orientation about the school overall. Fascinating, especially the founder, Anna. I think what struck me most of all though was the presentation about Hungarian Jews. I had never thought before about the factors that induce identity, and Andres pointed out the switch that occurred after World War One when language was replaced by new nationalistic borders. Countries, borders, nationalities, they all seem like such malleable fiction to me. Just because some treaty delineates lines of latitude into separate sections means nothing in reality. In fact, it seems it is these fictions that create the illusions of “us” and “them.” Clearly, the need to mark the Other fills some political and psychological need, but can’t we eventually see it’s all pretend?
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones and I think about how factions swear oaths of loyalty to various factions. It’s not so hard to extrapolate that to modern day sensibilities and our own willingness to fight the Other all for something so ephemeral.
The Lauder School itself was quite nice. The students are clearly happy there and apparently thriving. I was most impressed with the elementary school’s practice of having students create a meta-cognitive piece after every project so that the teachers can know what was and what was not effective. It will take some courage, I think, but I am going to try to incorporate this on both the high school and university level.
My Lauder school partner Judith Markos already feels like an old friend despite the fact that I just met her less than 24 hours ago.
Biggest take-away today: these kids are incredibly similar to their American counterparts. I think interchangeable.
We arrived Friday in Budapest and have been able to spend the past few days becoming acquainted with this fascinating city. Although it’s only been two days, it feels like Rome or Paris in the 90s. That’s a pretty cool thing.
Our guide today, Agi, clued us into a lot of Hungarian history, particularly Jewish history from her unique lens. There has been an integration of gentiles and Jews here that stretches back all the way to the Roman Empire. In fact we saw Jewish tombstones from the 3rd century. Agi’s sense of humor, although a bit sardonic, is authentic and insightful. Clearly, she, as well as others, are battling against the antisemitic right-wing propaganda that the Budapest Jews invited the Russians to invade in 1945 to save themselves and enslave the country.
Alan has spoken to us about a potential transformative experience awaiting us over the next week and it’s not hard to see how that could happen. We meet our teacher counterparts tonight at dinner and tomorrow we go to the Lauder school for the first time. Excited and a little nervous.
I love the area we are staying in, the old Jewish ghetto. The young people and “ruin” bars make it burst with vitality.