Daily Israel Report

Budapest’s Oldest Synagogue Reopens

Obuda Synagogue, built in the eighteenth century, officially re-opened in time for Rosh Hashanah.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 9/15/2010, 1:27 AM / Last Update: 9/15/2010, 1:24 AM

The oldest synagogue in Hungary’s capital Budapest reopened last week, just in time to mark Rosh Hashanah.

1500 people participated at the Obuda Synagogue’s dedication ceremony earlier this month, among them Hungary’s Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjn and Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.

The Obuda Synagogue was constructed in 1737, at a time when the Jewish community in Obuda was the largest in Hungary. The present building replaced it on the same site in 1820.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the local Jewish community shrank as Jews moved into the twin city of Pest. At its height in 1940, Hungary’s Jewish community consisted of about 800,000 Jews, with Budapest having 125 synagogues. Hungary was occupied by Germany later in the war, in 1944, and most of its Jews were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps where they were subsequently killed. Only about 200,000 Hungarian survived the Holocaust.

After the war, Hungary became a communist state, and in 1960, the Obuda Synagogue, which had remained standing all this time, was appropriated by the government and used as a studio for a state-run television network.

During his speech at last week’s rededication ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Semjn said that the event is significant not only to the Jewish people but also to the Hungarian government. He said that even though communism formally ended in Hungary 20 years ago, the reopening of the Obuda Synagogue is a symbol to the real end to communism.  “Every house of prayer, regardless of religion, represents the human being’s connection with G-d. Everyone has a need to have a connection with his Creator, so taking away synagogue takes away the individual’s freedom to have this bond.”

“Because of the Holocaust, a lot of people didn't come back to their places in this synagogue,” said Chief Rabbi Metzger about the synagogue’s re-opening.  “And after some years, the Communists took it and changed it into a textile museum and then into a studio for television.  So to come here after 50 years shows us that the Jewish renaissance in Hungary is real.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres also took part in the celebration, through letters they sent to the community’s members. Netanyahu described the re-opened synagogue as “the symbol of a Jewish renaissance” and Peres wished for the synagogue to “be a house of prayer for everyone.”

Leading the renewed Obuda Synagogue will be Rabbi Shlomo Koves. “This is the moment—when the Torah is installed—that makes the building a synagogue, a sanctuary,” he said. 

Rabbi Koves admitted he is concerned about re-emerging extremism in Hungary, as the far right Movement for a Better Hungary became the third largest party in recent elections. However, he said that he believes that the ongoing renovation of the Obuda Synagogue is the best way to fight extremism.  “The communit, on its own, renovated this synagogue, and uses it again for its original purpose, for prayers.  And that is the answer to all those voices that are here [representing] the strengthening anti-Semitism and the strengthening racism.  The best answer is to build [and] to get the community together and show that we are still living and give the people the chance to go back to their own identity...” he told Voice of America.

The synagogue will continue to carry its original name, Kehal Adas Yehsurin, and will also be known as Beit Knesset Chabad-Lubavitch. 

Hungary today is home to one of Central and Eastern Europe’s largest Jewish communities, with some 100,000 Jews currently living in the country. It is hoped that the re-opening of the Obuda Synagogue will encourage the same in other old synagogues throughout Europe.