Chabad-run secular Budapest university eyes major expansion
BUDAPEST (JTA) — Still a major center of Jewish thought and culture, Budapest is home to several towering Jewish institutions, such as the stately Dohany Synagogue and the 145-year-old University of Jewish Studies.
But arguably the most ambitious institution of all is tucked away in a drab suburban university campus on the northern outskirts of Budapest. There, young men and women in casual attire picnic and smoke on the lawns surrounding four buildings connected by spacious atriums.
This is Milton Friedman University, named after the influential Jewish-American economist whose immigrant parents were from what was then part of Hungary (and is now part of Ukraine). It opened in 2018 under the auspices of EMIH, a Hungarian Jewish group affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
The school, which is called MFU, currently has about 700 full-time students, of whom only about 15 percent are Jewish. But thanks to a $22 million government grant awarded in May, the school – which has the capacity to increase enrollment nearly sixfold – is looking to grow and become a “major player in Hungarian academia”, said said Daniel Bodnar, its president.
Running a secular university is unusual for Chabad, an Orthodox movement whose rabbis do community building work around the world. The group is famous for its efforts to reach out to less observant Jews, but like other Jewish groups, it does not proselytize to non-Jews. But the university is not a religious institution – most students study business.
EMIH hopes to increase the number of students in the Jewish studies department, called the Ashkenazium, and, according to a recent report, also open a rabbinical school.
“In a country where Jewish community life was decimated during the Holocaust and during Communism, the only way for a Jewish community to be relevant is to promote its beliefs and values through the most open and open operation diversity possible,” Rabbi Slomo said. Koves, the leader of the group.
Critics of EMIH say the group uses the university as a strategy to gain more public funding and influence. “They don’t really have any supporters in Hungary, so they created fictitious organizations like the MFU, which is not Jewish, and they open empty synagogues,” Zoltan Radnoti, a prominent rabbi from Mazsihisz, charged. largest Jewish group in Hungary. Mazsihisz is affiliated with Neolog Jewry, a Central European denomination similar to Conservative or Masorti Judaism, and has a long-standing, contentious relationship with EMIH.
The Chabad-affiliated group, Radnoti charged, “is happy to accept anything the government says and they get funding in return.”
Koves dismissed those claims, pointing out that Mazsihisz receives significantly more government funding than EMIH — a fact Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen confirmed to JTA. The group receives 75% of government funding for Jewish communities, Semjen said; Last year, Mazsihisz opened a new wing at his Jewish Charity Hospital in Budapest, built with a $14 million government grant.
Recently opened EMIH synagogues — at least five of them have opened in recent years — are “vibrant and viable,” Koves said. As for the small percentage of Jews at MFU, he said, “just like Yeshiva University in New York or Mazsihisz Hospital don’t limit their activities to Jews, neither do we.”
The spat and university point to the convoluted calculus currently facing Hungarian Jewish groups, as they operate under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a populist who has said he wants to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy and who recently expressed her displeasure with racial mixing.
Mazsihisz warned that Orban is “encouraging anti-Semitism” with his ad campaign against George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish-American billionaire who funds several left-wing causes, including in Hungary. (Soros moved a university he founded and supported, the Central European University, from Budapest to Vienna in 2018 after Orban enacted rules that prevented him from awarding degrees.) But Koves said that there was “nothing anti-Semitic” in the campaign.
The differences were exposed last month, after Orban said Hungarians “don’t want to become people of mixed races” and made a joke that appeared to refer to Nazi gas chambers in a speech in Romania.
Mazsihisz Chief Rabbi Robert Frolich called Orban’s remarks a “violation of human dignity and morality.” Koves called them “unhappy”.
Koves’ approach reflects the widespread attitude within Chabad that it is appropriate to work with any government that does not put Jews in particular danger. But it reflects the creativity the 43-year-old rabbi, who has a deep Rolodex as well as a propensity for working 16-hour workdays, has used to transform EMIH from a fringe group into a major force in the Jewish community. Hungarian.
The university was known as King Sisimund College for nearly two decades before EMIH bought it in 2018. The classrooms are spacious, but the age of the campus is starting to show. There are two cafeterias, one of which is kosher.
“Most of the budget goes to the students, not the building,” said Adam Gere, a Hungarian-Jewish mathematician who is the college’s CEO.
Located half an hour’s drive from the center, the largely residential area of MFU has a few attractions, including a beach on the Danube with plenty of bars and restaurants where many MFU students hang out. Most courses are in Hungarian and less than 10% of students come from outside Hungary.
In the past, many students paid tuition privately, which can cost a few thousand dollars per academic year, a fraction of what a private university costs in the United States, but still a considerable sum in a country where the average salary is slightly higher. $21,000. The new grant is mainly aimed at reducing the price for students, Bodnar said, and this year for the first time most students are getting government scholarships.
“Before the funding, MFU was barely affordable for a significant portion of the Hungarian population, including many Jews,” Bodnar said of the school, which previously had an operating budget of $6 million. dollars. “Now it can attract a much larger student population.”
Koves wants this larger population to include more Jews.
“We can do this in two ways: offering Jewish studies, but also simply by making a great university with strong departments of economics, communications, business administration and mathematics, because that’s where students Jews traditionally tend to gravitate,” he said.
Mazsihisz also has a university, the Jewish Theological Center, which teaches Jewish studies and social work. It has about 230 students and an annual budget of about $1.5 million, half of which is provided by the government and the other half by Mazsihisz, according to its vice-rector, Gábor Balázs.
But for Jews in academia, Koves added, there is symbolic significance to a secular university run by a Jewish group in Hungary, which in 1920 became the first European country to institute a quota limiting Jewish enrollment.
A Jewish student, Oliver Laczko, 19, said he felt “comfortable” at Milton Friedman University because it is a Jewish school. But he didn’t enroll there for that reason and doesn’t feel the need to study anything Jewish there, he said. Like many Hungarian Jews, one of her parents, her father, is not Jewish. His maternal grandfather is also not Jewish, and his mother only learned that his mother was Jewish when Laczko’s mother was 20 years old. “I’m interested in my Jewish heritage, but I’m not very observant,” he said.
Another Jewish student, Geri Buzas, who works in security for Israeli airline El Al, said MFU feels safe because they are Jewish.
Milton Friedman University is “a cool place, it’s a laid-back place, the professors are really top-notch,” said Buzas, a 24-year-old who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in international business and isn’t planning on leaving. study all Jewish subjects. “But I think it’s also a safe place for me because at the end of the day, I’m a Jewish kid.”