Why have Hungarian Jews been locked out of their synagogue?

Two Orthodox Jewish communities have clashed over ownership of a Budapest shul


This week, outside Budapest’s Kazinczy Street Synagogue, Orthodox Jews gathered in prayer. They would have preferred to be davening inside. But synagogue management had locked them out of the building.

One man prayed over an overturned bin on the street, with his prayer books resting on the hood of a nearby car. “It was all very strange and awful,” a Jewish American visitor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). “They were in such pain, and I was so sad”. 

The shul’s new management locked its doors on 20th July claiming the closure of the synagogue was due to necessary renovations. Many in the Orthodox Chasidic community (MAOIH), however, have disputed this. 

MAOIH’s former president, Róbert Deutsch, said that there are no construction sounds coming from the shul, and signs state that tourists can still enter for a fee.

Some members of MAOIH – notably, a splinter group, Shomrei Hadas – believe this to be the culmination of an alleged takeover of the shul, organised by the Chabad-affiliated Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH).

The takeover is at the centre of a controversy which has raged for two years. The MAOIH have alleged that “a large number of new members infiltrated [their community], which was organised by the Chabad-affiliated rival community”. 

In February, these new members elected a new president and general secretary, who were EMIH-affiliated. 

MAOIH believe this takeover to have been facilitated by the “naiveté and incautiousness of the community’s president”. 

The president at the time, Róbert Deutsch, said he “was betrayed”. “I totally take responsibility,” he said, “for being friendly with these people and trusting them fully”. He continued: “They care about gaining as much as possible financially, even if they need to destroy a local community”.

MAOIH claim that the alleged Chabad takeover is largely to do with budgets and real estate. Although the Orthodox community dwindled to only 50 people before the controversy, it remained housed in the Kazinczy Street Synagogue, an Art Nouveau structure in the heart of Budapest.

MAOIH alleges that the takeover “went against the community’s bylaw”. Although three religious courts have sided with them – and ruled that the leadership changes should be reversed – a secular court has sided with Chabad.

Critics of the takeover believe this to be due to Chabad’s close relationship with the Hungarian government. They argue that Chabad has received favourable treatment in return for silence on president Victor Orbán’s authoritarianism. 

The Hungarian government is currently funding a Chabad-sponsored university, and rabbi Shlomó Köves – the head of EMIH and Chabad’s Chief rabbi in Hungary – has close ties with Orbán. 

Several weeks ago, Köves met with rabbis and politicians in Israel, including Chief Rabbi David Lau. 

Chabad maintain that there was no takeover of the Orthodox community. “Chabad did not and is not planning on ‘taking over’ MAOIH, whatever that is supposed to mean,” Chabad’s official organisation in Hungary said.

EMIH told the Jerusalem post: “Recent events have nothing to do with our community and we respect the decisions of the orthodox community and its leadership”.

They continued: “Unfortunately, external parties are looking to stir up a fight and spread false accusations against us to serve their narrow interests”.

The approximately 100,000 Jews in Hungary are split between the MAOIH, EMIH, and a liberal Jewish movement led by a group called Mazsihisz. Andreas Heisler, Mazsihisz’s former leader, also railed against the alleged takeover. He called it a “sin against Judaism”.

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