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The Great Shtibl Revival of Hungary

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.

For many, Teleki fills a spiritual void untended to by the city’s organized Jewish establishment. “There would be 20 people in a big, empty space, and I would follow the mincha [afternoon] service and say Kaddish, but then not feel anything,” Tamas Adler, 27, a regular at Teleki, recalled about worshipping at another Budapest synagogue.

Step inside Teleki, and one is struck by the sense that things remain as they were at the turn of the century: Simple bronze chandeliers hang from the ceiling; yellowing kabbalistic paintings adorn the walls, and at the front rests an old Aron HaKodesh topped with two leaping lions of Judah. In the crowded synagogue, tattered prayer books are strewn about rows of stiff-backed benches. There’s a smaller women’s section separated from the men’s section by a mechitza.

Many of the congregants are discovering their Jewish heritage for the first time. While some daven, others read only a little Hebrew, sing a few songs or talk with friends. At the rear, the congregation’s president, Gabor Mayer, is intently following along, occasionally calling out page numbers, while in the kitchen area, Andras Mayer shmoozes with friends.

Neither brother is deeply observant. Like most of their contemporaries, the siblings grew up secular, Gabor Mayer, 32, explains. They are the children of parents who, in the era of Communist rule, wanted to hide their Jewishness or forget everything entirely.

After the war, religious Jews often left Hungary whenever possible, Mayer explains. For those who remained and were confronted with the social challenge of integration, most chose to engage their Jewish identities through culture alone. Moreover, he adds, Jewish life under communism was organized and directed and financed from the top. This kind of hierarchical structure, he says, holds little appeal to the generation of young adults now coming of age.

As many as 90,000 Jews are estimated to live in Budapest, but the overwhelming majority are assimilated. At one level there is a vibrant, thriving community with kosher restaurants and butchers, Jewish educational facilities and a rabbinical school. All the while, most of the city’s functioning synagogues struggle to make a minyan.

There’s a renaissance of Jewish life afoot, though at the same time, Andras Mayer said, “it’s an imbalanced revival” tilted decidedly toward cultural programming.

Neither of the Mayer brothers is a trained community organizer or an ordained religious leader. Nor does Teleki have any paid employees. The Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Israelite Community, one of three institutions that make up the Jewish religious establishment in present-day Hungary, provides the basic funding for utilities. The rest is covered by voluntary donations and, in the past two years since founding a not-for-profit, by grants for historical preservation that have helped the brothers begin the process of documenting the history of Teleki and that of the surrounding neighborhood.

Teleki was in operation throughout the Communist era, and traces its roots back to the Hasidim from Chortkov, in Galicia, Ukraine, who came to Hungary in the late 1890s. At its height, more than 17 shtiblekh functioned in the neighborhood. None today is visible, but the belief is that some lay dormant, their furniture and devotional objects stored away in closed apartments, waiting to be found.

Two such discoveries were made recently in Budapest’s Sixth District, while across Europe the Mayer brothers say they have identified a half-dozen still in operation.

As of now, plans for a formal shtibl network are in their early stages but could include shtiblekh such as the one located in Aberdeen, Scotland, which dates to 1945 and is said to be attracting congregants. In Istanbul there’s a two-room apartment on the edge of the Grand Bazaar, where Jews of Spanish origin assemble for daily minyans, while in Zilina, Slovakia, a shtibl is rumored to operate for the High Holy Days. The brothers have leads on shtiblekh in Ukraine. Thus far, they have turned up nothing in Poland.

If there were to be a revival, a critical first step would be the recognition of shtiblekh as living cultural institutions of important historical value, says Lesley Weiss, chair of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

“Just like a synagogue, [shtiblekh] are part of the heritage of American Jews, so we as a commission would be happy to help mark and preserve them,” Weiss said.

But such support, while welcomed, may not come fast enough to save the remaining shtiblekh. “Other shtiblekh are out there, struggling. They are there trying to make a minyan,” Andras Mayer said. “They are hanging on or are recently closed, but could be brought back to life.”

Eric Marx is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about the revitalization of Jewish communities in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

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