Despite the vast influence of Chabad in media, recently there has been some press coverage about the conflict between the Orthodox and the Chabad communities in Hungary, the most important one being the article of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But there are still many confusing elements in the story, and we are here to help.
- What should I know about Hungarian Jews?
- What should I know about the Orthodox community?
- How did Chabad arrive to Hungary?
- What is the background of the current conflict?
- What happened since the takeover?
- Who are Shomrei haDas and how can I help them?
What should I know about Hungarian Jews?
Most Hungarian Jews are either the descendants of Moravian Jews arriving in the 18th century from the west, or related to Chassidic Jews arriving from Galicia from the east. The most prominent rabbis were the disciples of the late Chatam Sofer זצ”ל or his descendants and studied in his yeshivah in Pressburg. By the second half of the 19th century, the growing tension between different fractions of the Jews led to a schism, and in 1868 the more assimilated Neolog Jews founded their organisation, the predecessor of current Mazsihisz, while in 1871 the more traditional Jews founded the Orthodox community, the predecessor of MAOIH. Jews not willing to join either side were known as the Status Quo community.
The Holocaust did not affect the same way the three main branches. In smaller cities and villages, mainly populated by the more religious, the death rate was around 80%, while in the more secular Budapest this figure was far lower, around 50%. The Status Quo branch was destroyed, while in 1950 the communist government forced the Orthodox and Neolog to form a single organisation, called MIOK, which lasted until 1990. Many survivors left the country after World War II and after the revolution of 1956. As a consequence, although there can be 50–100,000 halakhically Jewish persons in Hungary, the overwhelming majority of them are secular, and only a fraction leads a religious lifestyle.
What should I know about the Orthodox community?
After the 1956 revolution the Orthodox community dwindled to a few hundred families. Although small in number, they could maintain their institutions, they had a rabbi and one could buy kosher food. The fall of the socialism in 1989 caused a religious revival, which unfortunately meant that many young Jews moved to Israel or to the United States. Many smaller prayer halls had to be closed, the Jewish school had fewer and fewer students and it became more and more difficult to finance the community. However, a smaller group remained faithful to the spiritual heritage of the Chatam Sofer and the local Ashkenazi traditions, and new initiatives like Lativ and Tikva helped locals to return to their Jewish religion.
How did Chabad arrive to Hungary?
In 1989 a former Chassid of Pupa, R’ Barukh Oberlander arrived to Hungary from the United States, who established the local Chabad community, and was soon joined by his disciple, Slomó Köves. Initially they were welcome by the local community, but in 2004 they established EMIH, a state recognised “church” claiming to be the successor of the Status Quo community, which had been destroyed by the Holocaust. This enabled them to get state subsidies, and they also wanted a share in the annuity provided by the state in exchange of the real estate of the Orthodox and the Neolog communities, which was nationalised after World War II.
Chabad has been highly critical of the left leaning political connections of Mazsihisz, and after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won the 2010 elections, they became a very strong ally of the new government. Köves had an instrumental role in forging a strong alliance between Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which became even more important after President Donald Trump lost the election in 2020. Moreover, Köves helps fending off any accusations of anti-Semitism directed at the government, despite a widely debated political campaign against Jewish financier of Hungarian origin George Soros, the denial of Hungarian responsibility in the Holocaust, or the rehabilitation of highly controversial historical figures like Admiral Miklós Horthy, József Nyírő or Cécile Tormay.
Probably not independently of their loyalty, since 2010 Chabad has received precious real estate and subsidies amounting to millions of dollars. However, as investigative journalists have revealed, these Chabad affiliated businesses made huge losses under vague circumstances, costing the taxpayers a large sum of money. In 2017, in the presence of Chief Rabbi David Lau and high-ranking politicians, Chabad opened a slaughterhouse in Csengele, which was shut down in 2023 due to making more than $3 million losses. In 2014 a Chabad-affiliated but state owned kosher vegetable farm was founded in Kisvárda, which made almost $9 million losses since 2018, but it still has not ceased operations. In 2014 EMIH received a large office block from the state in Budapest, in 2019 they also got $5 million to renovate it, yet a few months ago a bailiff wanted to auction it on behalf of a Hong Kong offshore firm because of a $3 million overdue debt. Chabad also invested in building up a non-religious media portfolio, while in 2023 they bought a majority share in an aluminium foundry. Although the main objective of the Chabad affiliated TEV Foundation is to combat anti-Semitism, regular reports about their shady deals significantly fuel anti-Jewish sentiment in Hungary.
What is the background of the current conflict?
In January 2021 the community elected a new president, Róbert Deutsch. He had to solve the dire financial situation of the community, so he asked the help of the local Chabad affiliate, EMIH. First, they convinced him to bring the case of the reallocation of the state annuity to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which ruled in favour of MAOIH and EMIH. The losing party, the Neolog Mazsihisz did not accept the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. After this, under vague circumstances, unknown “phantom members” appeared on the list of community members. They turned out to be the employees of the Chabad slaughterhouse, who were not even living in Hungary, and were total strangers to the community.
When the legal members noticed this anomaly, they approached the beit din of the community headed by R’ Shmueil Eliezer Stern שליט”א, who ruled that it is forbidden to hold any assemblies as long as the list of members is not verified. When the fake members ignored the ruling, R’ Stern approached the beit din of the Eidah Charedit, which upheld the earlier decision. The Chabad infiltrators defied this ruling as well, and – exploiting the turmoil caused by the pandemic – they held a virtual assembly, where they overthrew Deutsch, and appointed a convicted former Neolog official, Gábor Keszler as president and the brother-in-law of Köves, Shmueil Oirechman as chief secretary of the community.
Benefitting from their good political connections and their influence in media, high-ranking politicians in Israel welcomed the new puppet leadership, and eventually the Hungarian government recognised the Chabad infiltrators as the legal representatives of MAOIH. As the infiltrators did not obey the ruling of the beit din, the old membership challenged this decision at the court with the permission of the rabbis, but it may take years until a final decision is made.
What happened since the takeover?
Despite agreeing on upholding the status quo until the court decision, Chabad took hold of the community headquarters in Kazinczy Street with the help of the police. Soon after expelling many workers, the infiltrators announced urgent restoration works in all three prayer halls in the complex, which forced congregants to pray on the street. Chabad also closed Hanna restaurant, which was the only restaurant in Hungary having a hekhsher according to the Charedi standards. This way Chabad could get rid of a competitor of their own restaurant, and could send the old members to pray in the empty restaurant. In a similar way, Chabad shut down the butcher’s shop and the grocery store of the community, thus helping the supermarket affiliated with them. Chabad closed the nursery as well and fired dozens of community employees.
It is quite unusual that after lamenting about the grave financial situation, Chabad started renovations in the Dessewffy Street synagogue as well, earlier provided to Ukrainian Jewish refugees. Unfortunately, we have evidence that they desecrated the Shabbat while doing these works. Chabad took over the Jósika Street shtiebel too, where they eradicated the last remnants of the past and affixed the picture of their leader. Earlier similar thing had happened to the unused Vörösmarty Street shtiebel, which was naively lent by Deutsch to Chabad, and decades ago R’ Oberlander had done the same to the Vasvári Pál Street synagogue, the property of Mazsihisz.
It seems to be a well-planned strategy of Chabad to take over unused synagogues in neighbourhoods mostly devoid of Jewish population, and fill them up with foreign Chabad emissaries to gain territory, and use it to support their claim to a higher share in the state annuity. However, by means of these Potemkin synagogues they actively destroy the Hungarian Jewish heritage, and prevent any possibility of the local community to reorganise and reinvigorate itself. Besides appropriating the use of the term Status Quo in 2004, in recent years R’ Oberlander also designated himself to be the Av Bet Din Tzedek of the Chareidi Communities of Budapest, whatever that means. Their only goal seems to be to destroy both the Orthodox and the Neolog Jewish heritage, and become the sole representatives of the Jewish community in Hungary.
Who are Shomrei haDas and how can I help them?
Shomrei haDas is an informal organisation of old members of MAOIH, the Hungarian Orthodox community and other Jews affiliated with them. We take our name of Hitőr Egylet, which was founded to stay faithful to our religious traditions and resist the modernisation efforts of the Neolog Jewish congress held in 1868. This association became the predecessor of the Orthodox community founded in 1871 under the auspices of the Ketav Sofer זצ”ל. Our main goal is to restore the autonomy of our congregation and remove the Chabad infiltrators, so we could rebuild our community based on our Hungarian Jewish traditions. As many news outlets refuse to report about our case, being afraid of the slightest confrontation with Chabad, you could help us a lot by spreading the word on social media or contacting journalists and politicians you know. If you have the means to support us with money, we will soon inform you about the possibilities.