BUDAPEST, Hungary - Rabbi Baruch Oberlander arrived in Budapest in the stifling heat of August 1989. For Oberlander, newly ordained, newly wed, loosed from his tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, it was an uncertain season.
"I was a little lost," he said. "My father used to tell very nostalgic stories about Hungary and about what Judaism was here. But that Judaism had vanished. Or it survived but not in Hungary. You could find it in Brooklyn or in Australia or in Israel but not in Hungary. The people who were really religious left Hungary."
Among those who fled was Rabbi Nisan Kremer, who left amid Hungary's failed 1956 revolt and came to the United States. Oberlander learned his family's history from his father; he learned his country's history from Kremer.
After getting married that spring, Oberlander - the son of immigrant Holocaust survivors - traveled to Milan to visit his wife's parents. There, he learned that Hungary's Orthodox community - still struggling under the last days of communism - was looking for rabbis to help it rebuild. The last yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish theological seminary, had closed in 1956 when the last few rabbinical students fled in the tumult of revolution.
Specifically, the Hungarian community that took Oberlander in was looking for a Lubavitcher rabbi, one of a small but vibrant group of Jewish missionaries who leave their homes in Brooklyn or Israel to help reclaim "lost Jews," primarily in former communist countries. Having never been to the country that sent his parents to the camps in Poland, he and his wife decided to go.
As Jews everywhere commemorate the miraculous rekindling of nearly three millenniums ago, Oberlander will celebrate Hanukkah with Hungary's first Orthodox rabbinical students in 42 years. The group includes 14 Americans.
In the Hanukkah story, the conquering Syrian-Greeks forcibly assimilated Jews and forbade the study of the Torah, much as the communists did. In the end, the Syrian-Greeks resorted to violence, ransacking the Temple in Jerusalem. But, with a little help from above - so the story goes - the people and their traditions prevailed.
The Nazis tried to exterminate Hungarian Judaism physically. The communists tried to exterminate Hungarian Judaism spiritually. Now, with only a fraction of the former Jewish population left and little religious education to speak of, both are on the verge of succeeding. This, Oberlander says, is what he's trying to prevent. The new yeshiva, then, is something of a counter-offensive.
Oberlander is 32 but, in many ways, looks younger. He smiles almost constantly, and his cheeks shine beneath a wild, black beard that seems to want to be on the face of an older man. Stout and with thinning hair, he has the bearing of a more senior rabbi but the energy of a student, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, ready to work.
He set out upon arrival to undo everything that had been done since his father left. Unlike Russia, where the communists shut down everything Jewish, Hungary had left open the butcher shops, the bakeries, the restaurants and even the synagogues. It had shut only the schools, including all but the last yeshiva, which closed by itself.
"These were smart communists," Oberlander said. "They knew that if you closed the schools, the rest become irrelevant."
So he has been teaching twice-weekly classes on the Talmud - the collection of Jewish law and commentaries beginning in the second century - almost nonstop since he arrived in August 1989. In 1990, he began lecturing on Jewish law at Budapest University's law school. The pre-school and elementary school that the community runs has grown to 50 pupils.
The government had also stopped the printing of prayer books. Of the few that can be found in the synagogues, almost all were printed before World War I. Many are in German, with psalms of praise to the last Austro-Hungarian emperor.
With the help of others in the community, Oberlander has published new prayer books in Hebrew and Hungarian, as well as Hungarian translations of more popular books, such as Herman Wouk's "This is My God." He also edits two monthly newsletters that have national circulation.
"My goal is that everybody should know what Judaism is all about," he said. "The biggest problem with Judaism today is ignorance, people not knowing what Judaism is about. Here you have a lot of kids going into these sects and cults. A lot of them are Jewish kids. A student of mine, who is now in yeshiva in New York, his older sister is in the Hare Krishnas. The family talked to me, and I went and talked to her. She said she liked the Krishnas because they gave her community and a structure. I said, 'What community, what structure?' I explained to her what Judaism is all about, and she said, 'Rabbi, if you had come five years earlier, I probably would be a religious Jew today.'"
In more than nine years in Hungary, Oberlander has watched the country become a stable, progressive democracy and set the economic gold standard for former communist countries. With everything Hungarians have had to learn during the last decade, Oberlander says, it's easy for his message to get lost.
But the old lessons, the ones that the communists tried so hard to drive home, are also fading.
"In 1989, people were still hiding," he said. "We sent out a Jewish newsletter, and one person said to me, 'Now everybody in my building will know I'm a Jew.' At one of our lessons, my wife took a photo, and one of the students got upset and never came back. A lot of people are still hiding now, but the young people, they don't hide. They don't know that they need to hide."
The communists did little or nothing to quell the anti-Semitism that had spread during World War II, when Hungary had initially been a Nazi ally. About 10 percent of the country's Jews, including Oberlander's parents, were deported to labor or death camps, mostly in Poland. Before the war, there had been nearly 50 synagogues in Budapest alone, including the Great Synagogue, Europe's largest, which seats 3,000. Now only a handful operate. The Great Synagogue, across the street from Oberlander's apartment, holds services only half the year.
Oberlander's apartment, always bustling except on the Sabbath, serves as the makeshift headquarters of Budapest's tiny Orthodox community. They are the activists here, trying to make headway with Hungary's approximately 80,000 Jews, most of whom are far from observant. It is the perfect environment for Oberlander, who has made it his life's work to reclaim "lost Jews."
"My job is to bring people closer to Judaism," he said. "I'm doing Orthodox bar mitzvahs, doing weddings. This year alone, I've done five weddings, five religious weddings. That's a lot."
Oberlander began his Jewish education in Brooklyn and attended religious schools all his life. Among his more influential teachers was Rabbi Kremer, under whom he studied at Brooklyn's Papa Yeshiva. For Kremer, Oberlander had been a special student. Teaching the boy was, in a way, returning a favor. Oberlander's grandfather had been Kremer's teacher in Budapest.
Kremer, 63 and retired from the Papa Yeshiva, has only vague memories of what he left behind. The son of Orthodox Jews, he did not find that religious education was even a decision to be made. As a boy in the aftermath of World War II, in a country newly "liberated" by Stalin, he began studying in Paks, a small town on the Danube, south of Budapest. As his studies took him further, he moved to the yeshiva in the capital.
"We were very poor," Kremer said. "There was very little food. [In Paks] there wasn't even running water. You had to go to the well. We slept on straw mattresses, with holes. I remember how they used to divide the butter and the honey. It was very meager. The communists really didn't want the religious to study. So, they starved us."
The country as a whole was starving. Hungary, whose brief experiments with democracy and autonomy had been crushed again and again - most recently by fascists and communists - was stirring. In the fall of 1956, as Kremer neared the end of his studies in Budapest, the city erupted.
On Oct. 23, students began to march. Tens of thousands flooded the city's boulevards and squares, brandishing flags with the communist emblem torn out. The army stood by, inert but nervous. The first gunfights broke out at the central radio studios. The revolutionaries - armed by sympathetic troops - won the first battle.
Soviet tanks arrived on the 24th. But without more support, the tanks were useless, and they retreated. Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy declared independence from Moscow and the Warsaw Pact. The revolutionaries had won the second battle, and by the end of the month, victory seemed almost permanent.
Rumors began to circulate that the borders with Austria, Hungary's only noncommunist neighbor, had been opened. Kremer and his 40 or so classmates, along with hundreds of others, headed west.
"They didn't have guards by the borders," he said. "So we were able to pass."
When more Soviet tanks and 200,000 troops marched into Budapest on Nov. 4, Kremer was safely in Vienna, arranging passage to New York, his back turned to the fighting that raged at home. Revolutionaries and Soviet troops clashed throughout the capital, flattening quarters that had only just been rebuilt. Even today, whole neighborhoods of central Budapest bear the scars.
Kremer comes to Hungary once every few years - most recently last summer - to visit his grandfather's grave. The next time, if there is a next time, he says, he's looking forward to seeing Oberlander after a decade, and a new yeshiva after so many years.
Sam Greene is a reporter in Budapest.
Pub Date: 12/13/98