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What Was Once the Largest Synagogue in the World

Camp Ramah and Ramah Israel Seminar teens participating in the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience are blogging from Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine over the next two weeks. The first blog post in the series reflects on the group’s short visit to Budapest, Hungary en route to the camp at the Natalya Guest House in the village of Volovets, about 30 kilometers from Munkatch in the Carpathian Region of Western Ukraine. 130 children from all over Ukraine are attending Yachad, which is run by The Schechter Institutes and celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer.

Fighting to keep my eyes open under the blazing sun of Budapest, I grabbed my bag from the security conveyer belt and walked into the grand Dohány Street Synagogue. Enamored but the beauty of the colorful chapel, I instantly woke up. Although the synagogue was mostly empty, I pictured it full of the happy, energetic Jews (who I imagined to be much like my family), who once occupied the Jewish quarter of the city and filled the neighborhood with their unique traditions.

As our tour of the synagogue began, the non-Jewish guide began speaking of the Jewish people as if they were completely extinct. Though I didn’t personally feel so attached to the Hungarian Jewish community, the concept of virtually an entire Jewish community disappearing in such a small amount time was a frightening thought. (There were around 825,000 Jews in Hungary before WWII, and today there are estimated to be only 50,000—but still the largest Jewish population in any of the Central-Eastern European countries.)

Earlier, before I even walked inside the doors of the synagogue, I received a text from a friend named Paz (a Mexican Jew from my boarding school), who happened to also be in Budapest. Paz messaged me she was right outside the synagogue! I walked quickly outside to meet her. We talked about our summers and hugged goodbye through the fence surrounding the synagogue.

Sometime later on the tour, the guide said that this was once the largest synagogue in the world, and that it was now second in size only to one in New York. I thought about this, and also about my encounter with Paz, and I realized that the large Jewish community in Hungary didn’t dwindle in vain. In its place emerged new, vibrant Jewish communities around the world, like mine in New York and Paz’s in Mexico City.

Eli Allison, 16, has spent nine summers at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. He is from New York, attends the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC, and loves ultimate frisbee and tennis.

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