For Henriett Kiss, coming to visit and getting to know Baltimore’s Jewish community was nothing short of inspirational and transformative.
“This experience has been very motivating,” said Kiss, a Hungarian literature and grammar teacher at the Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium, a Jewish day school in Budapest. “Baltimore is a very nice place and we have had very warm feelings during our visit. Here, members of the Jewish community embrace their community with all their heart and soul.”
Kiss was among seven Hungarian teachers who recently visited the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School as part of a new exchange program between the Pikesville school and Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium.
While in Baltimore for four days, the Budapest teachers shadowed their counterparts at Beth Tfiloh to learn about Jewish day school education in the United States. The program is called The Morim (High School Master Educators) Project and was created by the Rockville-based nonprofit called SOS International Bridging Jewish Communities.
“For approximately 70 years, there has been virtually no relationship between North American Jewish day schools and European Jewish day schools,” said Alan Reinitz, CEO of SOS International. “These projects are designed to create awareness that there are Jewish communities outside of Israel, the United States and Canada. It’s for Jewish communities who can benefit from relationship building and interaction. The purpose of these projects is to create a relationship between Jewish educators and Jewish students.”
There are currently four Jewish day schools nationwide partnered with a pair of Jewish day schools in Budapest. The organization also has received interest from day schools in Greece and Poland. Beth Tfiloh will cultivate this new relationship with its Hungarian sister school for at least the next five years.
Year one of The Morim project kicked off for Beth Tfiloh last year when seven of the school’s teachers visited Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium.
“It was a very exciting opportunity to go to Budapest and teach Torah at a high level while still being accessible,” said Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, director of Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh and one of the teachers who visited the Hungarian capital last year. “What we learned is the teens in Hungary don’t necessarily have Torah scholars who can relate to them — it’s either old-school rabbis or youth directors who don’t have a deep knowledge of Torah. In the U.S., there is a wealth of great Jewish teachers who can do both of those things.”
The first year of the exchange program culminated last week with the Budapest teachers’ recent visit to Beth Tfiloh. During their time in Baltimore, the teachers sat in on classes and taught students their respective subjects. For example, Rebeka Szucs, who teaches music in Budapest, taught music to Beth Tfiloh students.
“I’m amazed to see how much equipment there is and how many facilities the students have to use,” said Szucs, who is also a special education teacher and a speech, language and music therapist. “We don’t have as much in Hungary, and it’s a pleasure to see the students can learn by using the equipment and facilities provided to them.”
Year two through five of the partnership — which is called The Limmud Project — is now underway and involves both teachers and students from Beth Tfiloh and Budapest. In April, six juniors and six seniors from Beth Tfiloh will spend nearly a week visiting the Jewish day school in Budapest and getting to know the students there.
“People in the U.S. and people who are surrounded by a thriving Jewish community tend to forget about Jewish communities in other parts of the world,” said Daryn Levine, a junior going to Budapest in the spring. “This program tries to bridge the gap. We may speak a different language, but we are all Jewish and are we are all people. We can learn and grow from each other, and to experience that firsthand is unique.”
More than 50 students from Beth Tfiloh applied to be part of this project. They were required to write essays on what they hoped to gain and offer during the Budapest journey.
“We are lucky to be proud of our Judaism,” said Rikki Margalit, also a junior preparing for this trip. “We want to show these teens in Budapest that being Jewish is something to be proud of and not hide. Also, my grandparents are from Hungary and I can’t wait to see where they came from.”
Once in Budapest, the Beth Tfiloh students will spend the week sitting in on classes, learning about Jewish life and culture in the area and teaching English to their Hungarian peers. The trip will end with a Shabbaton, as a way to bring learning outside of the classroom.
“We are engineering formal and informal experiences where the kids can be positive Jewish role models to one another,” said Rabbi Soskil. “In Budapest, there is so much history in people’s hearts and minds regarding the Holocaust that for them to experience cool, smart Jewish kids who are proud of their Jewish identity is different.”
Said Aaron Ness, a junior heading to Budapest in April: “It’s a scary time. There is anti-Semitism all over the place and I think we need to combat that and not hide or run from it. It’s important for stronger Jewish communities to support ones that are still growing.”
The Beth Tfiloh students say they have a lot to learn from the Hungarian students and teachers. “This isn’t a mission — we are going to learn,” said Eitan Murinson, another junior going on the spring trip. “It’s really important for us to learn about their culture and way of life so we can bring it back and share it with our community here in Baltimore. They have the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world, and can now barely fill the pews. We really need to have a cool sharing and exchanging of Judaism.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.