Holocaust memory is critical to Jewish identity, but Marcell Kenesei wants the Hungarian-Jewish people to transcend the traumas of the Shoah.
The 38-year-old spoke to the Journal about the future of Hungarian Jewry during a three-day visit to Los Angeles, where he attempted to raise support and awareness for the community-building work of the JCC Budapest — Bálint Ház.
During a wide-ranging conversation at a café in Beverly Hills, the JCC Budapest director highlighted how the JCC in Hungary is fostering a diverse, pluralistic and vibrant Judaism.
“We are redefining what Judaism means in the 21st century,” Kenesei said.
JCC Budapest operates much like the JCCs in the United States, welcoming children, families, singles, adults, seniors and Holocaust survivors. A total of 3,500 monthly visitors enjoy more than 100 in-house programs, including a teen initiative, a Holocaust survivors group, a Jewish film festival, a street festival, young adult professional network, all-night Shavuot learning and Israeli dance activities for people with disabilities.
“No matter what you think of your own Judaism or Judaism in general, you are welcome here,” Kenesei said.
Kenesei’s background exemplifies the challenging and complicated history facing Hungarian Jews. Growing up, he attended the Lauder Javne Jewish Community School in Budapest, which was funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, but he didn’t learn he was Jewish until he was 13 years old.
“My story is very common,” Kenesei said.
After learning the truth about his identity, he immersed himself in the traditions and history of the Jewish people. Eventually, his newfound passion led to a career as a Jewish professional. In 2000, he became director of JCC Budapest, succeeding longtime director and Hungarian Jewish educator Zsuzsa Fritz.
Today, more than 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, making it the largest Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1994, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, JCC Budapest was established with the goal of bringing Judaism to those who, like Kenesei, were ready to explore their true identity. Today, more than 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, making it the largest Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe. According to Kenesei, about 20,000 people in this group consider themselves Jewish, and he would like to see that number grow.
While the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) launched JCC Budapest, it became independent in April and is now responsible for its own fundraising.
“JDC is like a good parent,” Kenesei said. “Now, it is taking a step back and making sure we thrive.”
The nonprofit Friends of JCC Budapest helps with procuring financial support for those enrolled in JCC Budapest programs as well as resources for new initiatives.
Kenesei pointed to the JCC Krakow, led by Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, as an example of an Eastern European Jewish organization that has changed the community’s perception of Eastern Europe. While JCC Krakow has helped Poland reimagine itself as a destination of Jewish life, JCC Budapest has also become an essential part of the European Jewish revival, he said.
The recent work of the Budapest JCC has gone beyond engaging the Hungarian-Jewish community. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Hungary, sharing a border with the besieged country, has welcomed 350,000 Ukrainian refugees. JCC Budapest has helped organize food and supplies drives in support of those who have fled for their lives.
While Kenesei is proud of all his organization has accomplished, there is still plenty of work ahead. For one thing, for all his JCC offers, it still does not match the size and scope of JCCs in the United States. How would he like his community to grow? Adding a swimming pool, which serves as a major revenue earner for JCCs here, would be nice, he said.
“Our JCC is cute,” Kenesei said, “but not as impressive as the JCCs in America.”