Stranded in Budapest’s international airport due to heavy snowstorms across Europe, a group of 150 reflected on their long weekend in an Eastern European city. Organized by the Sephardic Community Center, the annual journey to Hungary offered untold networking opportunities for the community’s young adults. Spearheaded by Frieda Tawil and Ralph Shammah, the trip further offered an amazing opportunity to zoom in on one of Europe’s most historical, and interesting cities.
It all started on a Wednesday evening, the eve of one of the year’s busiest travel weekends. Somehow—by train, shuttle, or taxi-cab—we all managed to congregate at the right place at the right time to board Lufthansa and British Airways flights to Budapest, Hungary. Once on the ground, coach buses and a group of knowledgeable tour guides presented the city’s most precious sites.
Representatives of the Jewish community in Budapest started us off with an in-depth city tour. Interestingly, the city’s name is derived from the division created by the Danube River, namely into the hilly “Buda” side, and the inner city “Pest” side. The first stop was Heroes’ Square, a national plaza with monuments of the first Hungarian kings.
One of our members, Tova Chaco, called it the perfect Kodak moment. Indeed, it was probably the most fascinating square in the city.
Other highlights included Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion.
As the lead tour guide mentioned, Budapest is world-renowned for its architecture, geography, and Jewish culture. Architecturally, Budapest is home to the fourth largest parliament building in the world. Its position geographically is unique because of the Danube River.
But arguably the most fascinating part of the city is its Jewish quarter and the historical background surrounding it. The Great Synagogue serves as its centerpiece. Built in 1859, it’s the world’s second largest, seating an astonishing 3,000 people. Its décor is jaw-dropping, containing both Moorish and Byzantine artistic elements. Although damaged during World War II and the Communist period, an ambitious restoration was completed by Estée Lauder and Tony Curtis and the building’s splendor is fully apparent.
Viewing the Torah scrolls, menorahs, and collections of sefarim gave us a glimpse of what life could have been like six decades ago. It was indeed evident that there was once a thriving Jewish community in Budapest. But all that changed with the Holocaust.
Although they numbered 700,000 prior to World War II, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis in just nine months. Today, there is no accurate figure as to the number of Jewish residents, as the vast majority does not reveal they’re Jewish.
As Jack Hazan said, “Its great to see how in the middle of such a dynamic city, a few Hungarian Jews are able to keep their customs and dress intact, pretty much like the old days; very authentic.”
While there very well could have been one itinerary, everyone was given the choice to select from a few pre-organized options. Even then, the mood was relaxed so that if you had something else you wanted to visit, you had the freedom to go wherever you wanted.
A few girls from our group chose to visit the Museum of Modern Arts and said, Bodero’s art and those of other local painters was an incredible sight as was the building’s architecture and moldings.
On Shabbat night, the men went to Hungarian-style prayers and when we returned, everyone sat down for Shabbat dinner. When asked about the networking opportunities the trip offered, Pauline Setton noted, “I loved the environment created in such a short amount of time; it allowed us to transform a familiar face into a lasting friendship or to reconnect with friends of the past.”
When asked for feedback about this specific trip compared to those of prior years, Joseph Saban stated, “Although the day tours last year in London may have been better, nothing compares to the nightlife in Budapest.”
Whether it was the shock on our faces getting a 3,000 forint bill at a café, walking the Chain Bridge in 25-degree weather and a steady snow, or trying to say thank-you in Hungarian, Budapest will always remain engrained in our minds as an unforgettable experience.
Jack Srour is a freelance writer for publications relating to history, politics and Judaism. He is a graduate of Baruch College and is currently working on a master’s degree at New York University.