Visitor to Milwaukee develops European Jewish community

The Jewish community of Hungary is a world away from Wisconsin. Hungarian Jewry was decimated in the Shoah. Those Jews who survived the Nazi cataclysm and returned to their homeland suffered repression during decades of Soviet domination.

Now looking to the future, not just the horrific past, Tamás “Tomi” Büchler helped found and leads a group called Minyanim. His group encourages young Hungarian Jews to design programs aimed at reigniting Judaism and Jewish community in their corner of the Old World. As of this year, Minyamin has expanded its “European Jewry 2.0” outreach to more than a dozen other European countries.

Büchler visited with Minneapolis Jewish Federation and Milwaukee Jewish Federation representatives, coming in from Budapest, Hungary, first to Minnesota and then Wisconsin. On Milwaukee’s East Side in February, he met with local Jews at a Pizza Man dinner (where he hardly ate, as he was so excited to speak of his mission) and at Hillel Milwaukee.

Tomi Büchler says that what the Jewish Agency for Israel is doing in Hungary, promoting Birthright and funding Birthright, is making a crucial difference. Photo by Mordecai Specktor of American Jewish World of Minnesota.

He seemed to attendees to be devoted to assisting and connecting Eastern European Jewry. For him, Jewry in that part of the world need not be so defined by the Holocaust, but also by current efforts to grow its vitality.

“I think that was a big part of it,” said Greg Parrish, who is on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Parrish heard this message: “There’s more to us than just that.”

The problems in Eastern Europe can relate to identity. “You have a lot of people who historically are Jewish,” said Danny Kerns, an attendee who is on the Young Leadership Division Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation board. “A lot people find out they’re Jewish and don’t know what to do.”

Büchler is working to show his fellow Eastern European Jews the way.

Rather than not going to shul or celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah, Hungarian Jews might not know they’re Jewish until they reach their early 20s, according to Büchler.

“It’s a complete disconnection from any kind of organized Jewish events or organized Jewish community — literally, no connection,” Büchler explained.

Even before the horrific experience of the Holocaust — in which 80 percent of the nation’s Jews were murdered in the span of six or seven weeks — Hungarian Jews were quite assimilated into the larger society, according to Büchler.

“Hungarian Jews were never shtetl Jews,” he pointed out, and added that Hasidism and Yiddish were not in the mainstream of the community. Büchler remarked that Hungarian Jews were mainly middle class or upper middle class, and had their own stream of Judaism, which is called Neolog Judaism and originated in the late 19th century.

After the trauma of the Shoah and the Communist era, Hungarian Jews who made Judaism a priority in their lives fled the country. “Even our grandparents made the choice not to be too involved in the Jewish community,” commented Büchler, whose family is an anomaly in observing Jewish holidays.

Büchler’s parents — who each suspected that the other was Jewish when they met in dental school, but did not know how to broach the subject — had a Jewish wedding. It took place in Büchler’s grandparents’ apartment, with a chupah, or wedding canopy, and the Judaic ritual performed behind drawn curtains.

Jews were not physically exterminated by the Communist overlords ruling Hungary during the Cold War; but Jewishness was regarded as a hindrance to social advancement, said Büchler, who added that the official Jewish body colluded with the Communist regime. “It wasn’t necessarily the kind of framework you wanted to be part of.”

To illustrate how his parents and their generation were traumatized by the Communist era, Büchler told the story of his 2-year-old son’s bris.

“I wanted to have have a Brit Mila [ritual circumcision]… and we invited people. Hundreds of people were showing up — we did it in one of the Jewish schools, and the mohel was on the way, we had a mohel coming from Israel.

“So my father, literally, two minutes before the [ritual], told me, ‘Tomi, you really don’t need to do that.’”

Büchler informed his father that they would be going forward with the bris.

The younger generation of Hungarian Jews apparently is more open to Judaism and Jewish culture, which is where Minyanim, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, plays an important role.

Büchler had his eyes opened about the diversity of the Hungarian Jewish community when he participated in a Jewish Agency-sponsored Birthright Israel trip. A half dozen or more Hungarian Birthright trips take place each year. Büchler, who had been an enthusiastic participant in Jewish camping and other activities, poured himself into Jewish activism.

“I think what the Jewish Agency is doing in Hungary, by promoting Birthright and funding Birthright, makes a crucial difference,” he said, “because my parents’ generation never wanted to send their kids to Jewish camp, so the 500 kids I grew up with were 500 kids of parents who saw some sort of a value in sending their kids to a Jewish camp; but the other 90 percent of [Jewish] parents, they never saw that it made sense, or this was no value proposition for them.”

However, the disconnected “90 percent” of young Hungarian Jews arrived at university and found that they could get a free trip to Israel through Birthright, if they could prove that they have a Jewish grandparent.

Upon their return to Hungary, many of the Birthright participants are looking for “a sense of belonging and a way to connect with their heritage,” Büchler pointed out.

Minyamin, in its efforts to foster a new generation of European Jewish leaders, has offered micro-grants, since 2009, for varied Jewish-oriented projects. Buchler mentioned that a young woman in Warsaw, Poland, created challah-baking workshops. Also in Warsaw, a Jewish running club was formed; Maccabi Poland now offers soccer, yoga and other athletic programs.

And Büchler cites a success story in Budapest: A woman started Talmud Now, a text study project that attracts 70 to 80 people to sessions held in “the most hipster bars.”

“They are secular people who don’t have a deep knowledge, if any knowledge, of Talmud or Jewish texts,” he pointed out. “But they are going to this bar, and they get a text and they start a discussion around the text. It’s pretty powerful.”

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle contributed to this story.