In addition to teaching three math classes today, I sat in on a math class led by Christian, one of my colleagues at Lauder. Though I understood all the math going on, I most certainly did not understand all the Hungarian – so Réka, my wonderful partner teacher, translated the lesson for me as it progressed.
I enjoyed chatting with Réka and Christian after the lesson about the differences between math in Hungary and in the United States. Hungarians don’t break math into discrete courses like “Algebra” and “Geometry.” Instead, every year, they learn some geometry, some algebra, and some number theory. Lauder is thoughtful about tailoring their program to meet the needs of every student. I was particularly intrigued by their practice of having a “free block” each week during which students can choose either to take a “support” lesson during which they practice and review – or an “extension” lesson during which they learn optional advanced content.
Though there were some differences to be noted, what struck me most about the lesson was just how similar classes at Lauder are to classes at CESJDS. The students had a warm relationship with their teacher and joked with him as they learned. They were excited to offer insights during the lesson – and, of course, they asked several questions of the form, “will this be on the test?” Interestingly, when I asked the students what they like best about Lauder, they sounded just like CESJDS students. They spoke of how much they love the open, accepting community – and how much they value their strong, friendly relationships with teachers.
Time and time again on this trip, my colleagues and I have uttered the refrain, “teenagers are teenagers.” Though we’re halfway around the world, as we chat and joke with our students here, it often feels like we never left Rockville. My students at Lauder reference the same youtube videos as my students at CESJDS. They are savvy, politically-minded, goofy, and eager to laugh. My commute to work is quite different here – but the work is more similar than I ever would have imagined. (For the record, I must confess that crossing the unspeakably beautiful Danube River each morning sure beats taking in the sights of 495!)
I wasn’t teaching during first period today, so I attended my colleague Rachel Bergstein’s Jewish History class. It was fascinating to watch Lauder students discover a shared history they had heretofore known almost nothing about. Many of these Hungarian students knew about Jewish flight from Europe in the years leading up to World War II – but few realized how many American Jews have familial roots in Hungary. Even fewer knew about the Jewish people’s long history of exile and resettlement.
We’ve heard many stories in Hungary about people who have only just learned of their Jewish heritage. We spoke with Zsuza Fritz, Director of the Budapest JCC, who didn’t find out until her grandfather’s funeral that her grandparents (and her parents and all their family friends) were Jewish. Many students at Lauder have had similar Jewish journeys. They and their families are newly in the process of working to determine what it might mean to make Judaism part of their lives and identities.
I spent much of my day grappling with what it might feel like to learn as a teenager that one’s grandparents or great-grandparents were Jews. I found myself wondering how I might react if it was suddenly revealed that my ancestors were, for instance, French. Perhaps I might choose to embrace this identity; I might learn the French language, try out some French recipes, maybe even visit Paris. But I might be just as likely to treat this newfound information only as an interesting bit of family trivia. I might think, “Well, now I know something new about my great-grandparents – but I don’t know anything new about me.” We hope that Jewish teenagers in places like Budapest will come to value their Jewish identities – but it certainly isn’t a given that learning of Judaism in one’s past automatically implies an investment in having a Jewish future.
This, I think, is why Rachel’s class was so important for the Lauder students. American Jews interact with their faith and culture in a wide array of ways. But, for American Jews of all stripes, connection to the past is a primary reason for valuing Judaism moving forward. Knowing the ways in which Jewish tradition has been threatened heightens one’s investment in working to preserve it. Hopefully, with growth in the Jewish history program at Lauder, more students will come to see themselves as integral parts of the Jewish story – and will feel invested in writing the next chapters of that story.
Lauder is, without a doubt, an incredible school – and the students here are getting a great education in a beautiful city. That said, I found myself thinking several times today about just how lucky the students at CESJDS are for having families that made their way to America. In America, Judaism is alive. For so many American Jews, having Jewish ancestors means one is now part of a vibrant, thriving culture and community. I see every day at CESJDS just how much Judaism impacts my students’ lives and identities. For none of my students is Judaism simply a fact about their ancestral past.
Students at Lauder have been excited to share with me about great Hungarian achievements. I’ve come to that the Rubik’s cube was created by Ernő Rubik – a Hungarian sculptor – and that the ballpoint pen was developed by László Bíró – a Hungarian newspaper editor. I am excited to come back in a few years to hear students excitedly share great Jewish achievements as they learn more about this aspect of their history and identities.
In the current political moment, it’s difficult to say what, exactly, it means to be an American. My relationship with my own American identity has been in flux for the past week – and, as such, it was with a complex array of emotions that I walked into the Lauder School carrying an American flag this morning.
My nerves quickly settled, however, upon meeting Colleen Bell, the American Ambassador to Hungary. Ambassador Bell spoke so beautifully about what she believes to be our core American values – liberty, justice, equality, tolerance. She went on to say that one of the most important thing for Americans to do right now is meet and converse with people different from themselves. She fears that respectful dialogue between those with opposing views has become increasingly rare – and that this has led to greater division within our republic.
I found myself inspired by Ambassador Bell and was excited to share her message with my Hungarian students. I spoke with them about the value to be found in meeting and conversing with someone new – and then worked with them to determine how many handshakes would take place if every student at Lauder actually met and conversed with every other student at Lauder. (We went on to determine how many handshakes would take place if all 2 million citizens of Budapest actually met and conversed with each other – which, for the record, is about 1,999,999,000,000.)
As testament to the value of establishing new connections, I was fascinated to learn from the students about political divisions within Hungary. Many spoke about their Prime Minister’s refusal to adhere to EU policy and quotas regarding migrants – and about a controversial referendum that was passed last month to this effect. The students perceived similarities between the current moment in Hungary and the current moment in America, particularly as relates to concern over immigration.
These issues stood out in my mind as I toured Budapest in the afternoon. I was walking around in a country that once had large swaths of its population wiped out because of hatred for difference. I was walking past memorials to individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz – heroes who once went to great lengths in protecting people from persecution. So clear in this city is the importance of celebrating diversity and speaking out against discrimination of any form. So clear is the importance of helping those in need.
I find myself hopeful and stirred to action. It is incumbent on Americans – and on people worldwide – to do take Ambassador Bell’s advice to heart; we must actively strive to learn from and about people who are different from us. We must see the humanity in all people. It is also incumbent on all of us to remember the lessons of the Holocaust – lessons so stark in this particular city. We must be prepared to speak out against the persecution of minority groups. We must not allow ourselves to be apathetic to the plight of those who are suffering.
Though I didn’t shake 1,999,999,000,000 hands today – I did manage to meet many new students and colleagues. And through those meetings, I gained both perspective and inspiration. I’m excited for what’s to come as I shake even more new hands moving forward!