Battle for Budapest synagogue linked to Orbán government

Battle for Budapest synagogue linked to Orbán government

Hungarian Jews are accusing Chabad of usurping control of their community organisation  by cultivating links with the Hungarian government.

(JTA) – David Kelsey, a publicist from New York, was disturbed to hear about an alleged takeover of Budapest’s historic Orthodox congregation, in part because of his Hungarian Jewish roots. So, when visiting the city, he decided to investigate the situation for himself.

He found the city’s Jews gathered outside the locked doors of the historic Kazinczy Street Synagogue, barred from entering by the new management.

The photographs he took on the scene show an elderly man praying while seated on an overturned trash bin on the street, and the hood of a car serving as the best available surface to set down prayer books and ritual garments.

“That the dignified old man had to use the garbage can as a chair just really showed me how degraded and disgusting the whole thing was,” Kelsey said. “It was all very strange and awful. They were in such pain. And so sad. … I was so angry.”

Kelsey had witnessed an escalation in a saga that has been unfolding for more than two years. Members of the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community of Hungary (MAOIH), which operates the Kazinczy Street Synagogue and several other institutions, are accusing the Hasidic Chabad movement of usurping control of their group — and its funding and real estate — with the aid of the Hungarian government.

Three religious courts have ruled that the leadership changes should be reversed or put on hold, but a secular court has sided with Chabad.

MAOIH had dwindled to only about 50 people before the recent controversy, and the synagogue had no dedicated rabbi and lots of dysfunction, per several accounts. But the group still possessed an official status entitling them to government funding as well as a host of institutions, including a school and old-age home, and enviable real estate. Chabad now has control of these assets, and its opponents attribute the fact to the relationship between Rabbi Shlomó Köves, Chabad’s chief rabbi in Hungary and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Rabbi Slomo Koves (Peter KohalmI/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics believe Chabad has received favourable treatment in return for silence in the face of the authoritarianism that they say has characterized Orbán’s rule, including the whitewashing of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and rhetoric against Hungarian-American Jewish financier George Soros. One possible measure of Chabad’s standing is the money the government is pouring into a Chabad-sponsored university.

Representatives of Chabad have repeatedly rejected the allegation of a takeover of the Orthodox organisation, known by its Hungarian acronym as MAOIH. They say the group remains independent and that the current leadership assumed its place legitimately through the MAOIH’s formal process.

“Chabad did not and is not planning on ‘taking over’ MAOIH, whatever that is supposed to mean,” Chabad’s official organisation in Hungary said in a statement.

But MAOIH’s former president, Róbert Deutsch, says rabbis identified with Chabad took advantage of the group’s decision-making process as part of a deliberate power grab.

A group of Hungarian Jews calling themselves Shomrei Hadas (Guardians of the Faith) has organised what it calls a “sort of guerrilla organisation,” to resist the Chabad takeover.

Referring to Chabad’s ties with Putin in Russia, one Shomrei Hadas member who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal said, “They want to create the same model in Hungary.”

EMIH did not address JTA’s questions regarding its relationship with the Hungarian government.

Top photo: Worshippers hold morning services outside the locked doors of the Kazinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, July 21, 2023. (David Kelsey)