In a nondescript apartment building in Budapest’s Eighth District, Rabbi Sholom Hurwitz stands behind a wooden podium and claps out the beat to a raucous Sephardic melody. About 30 people, most of them men, pray together in the flat’s main sanctuary, a small living room that the congregants affectionately call their shtibl — from the Yiddish for “house” or “little room.”
Although it adheres to an Orthodox liturgy, the shtibl at Teleki Square attracts a wide spectrum of young and old worshippers, including nonaffiliated and newly religious people who say the blending of prewar religious tradition and individual freedom speaks to a post-Communist generation still reeling from five decades of spiritual blight.
“It went against the trend,” Hurwitz said of Teleki’s apparent success. “Almost everything in Jewish life is starting to happen in the shul.”
Shtiblekh were common in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. By the 1880s they had become a fixture of the urban landscape associated with westward migrations into capital cities like Budapest, and beyond, to places like New York and Chicago. Typically located in a room of a private home or a place of business, and set aside for the express purpose of prayer, they offered all the communal services of a synagogue, but in a more casual and intimate atmosphere. For a time, Teleki was thought to be the last of its kind — a relic rescued from oblivion by a handful of dedicated congregants.
But now other shtiblekh are being discovered. And in Teleki’s rebirth as a fringe alternative, a younger generation of Hungarian Jews says it sees a model that can potentially be replicated elsewhere.
“We want to identify, renovate and revive those shtiblekh that are still existing and which are late in their survival period, like we were 10 years ago,” said Andras Mayer, 42, one of the members who, together with his brother, Gabor Mayer, and Hurwitz have helped rescue what was a dying congregation. Where once the century-old congregation struggled to find enough men for a minyan, the tiny three-room house of prayer now overflows with members. Saturday services have been extended one hour, with congregants arriving early for brewed coffee (operated on a special timer), followed by a lunch of kosher cholent prepared the night before, by the rabbi’s wife.