How would you introduce yourself?
I am Ráchel Surányi, a sociology PhD student. I was brought up and socialized in a Jewish environment. Therefore, Judaism has always had a very important role in my life. I was six when I first went to Szarvas (Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp), and until the age of 19 – with the exception of one year – I spent there two weeks every summer. I also attended Somer (Hashomer Hatzair) and later Habonim (Habonim Dror) for a couple of years. Partly because of this I decided during my university years that I wanted to study Jewish Studies. Nowadays I mainly connect to Judaism through my profession / studies and I also live my life in it.
What does Jewish identity mean to you and what role does active participation in the Jewish community have in your life?
There are lots of discussions whether Judaism is a nation, a religion, etc. Actually, this is what I research, too. Because I do not keep most of the rules of the Jewish religion and I do not feel like Israel is my homeland, I can say that Judaism for me can be mainly defined as a culture in a broad sense, which is based on Jewish values. For me one of the most important Jewish values is philanthropy. That is why I do a lot of volunteer work as a Jew, even in non-Jewish environment (for details see below). The other very important value that I also derive from my own Jewishness – or the discrimination against Jews and minorities in general to be exact – is my commitment to integration.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian Jewish community today?
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is the lack of the legitimate representation of the Hungarian Jewish community, which could be concluded from everything I said above, while it also connects to the question: what is Judaism? Moreover, it also relates to the lack of trust in the Eastern European establishment. To solve this problem will obviously take a long time. Another issue, which might be solved more easily, is the holocaust based identity, which is not specific to Hungary but it has a strong presence in Hungary. It is first and foremost the task of such Jewish communities and institutions, whose mission is to strengthen the Jewish identity and to create a flourishing Jewish community life.
What kind of Jewish community would you like to see in 18 years? What steps would be necessary in your opinion to have this vision realized?
I will be the happiest if my children have at least as many options to choose from as I had, including the Jewish youth organizations, the summer camp in Szarvas, the Jewish schools, etc.
What do you think about the coexistence between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary? How successful do you consider the dialogue between Jews and non-Jews?
In my opinion, it is very difficult to tell. From what I see it seems that Jews and non-Jews can live more or less peacefully with one another. I think anti-Semitism is not one of the most significant social issues. Jews are integrated – or even assimilated – members of the society, even if there are incidents. Here I mainly refer to the everyday life; politics are a different question.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian society today?
Poverty, education, xenophobia, and the integration of the Roma minority – not necessarily in this order. In Hungary, there are huge inequalities; we have masses living in extreme poverty, not to mention the loads of children who are affected by this problem; we should waste no time to solve this issue. Apart from this, the education is also appalling, and it is best characterized by institutionalized centralization and bureaucracy. The vast majority of the Roma minority, which makes up 6 or 7 percent of the entire population, still lives in segregation and poverty, and this is due to the shortcomings and defects of the system. By xenophobia, I mean fear of the Roma, the migrants who appeared in the summer, the minorities that live here, and the strangers in general. According to the statistics, Hungary leads in these categories internationally. This knowledge I mostly gained during my sociology studies.
In order to overcome these challenges, what do you think is the role of each individual, and what is the role of the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities?
This is a rather complex question that cannot really be answered in four or five, or even ten sentences. Social problems are, inter alia, reproduced by the system, which is in close connection to the political regime and the economic system, which I am no expert of. The Hungarian nonprofit organizations operate well, in my opinion, and as much as I know, but they are overwhelmed because they take charge of such activities that should not be handled by them (it is only the state that does nothing: see the 2015 migrant crisis). The responsibility of the Jewish community is just as much as that of the non-Jewish community, and there is room to improve in this matter.
What does Israel mean to you and how do you look at Israel?
My connection to Israel is ambivalent. I do not consider it my homeland but it is no coincidence that I do the research for my thesis in Israel. I am definitely embittered and annoyed by Israeli politics. This might not be the case if there were no external pressure, meaning people would not identify Jews with Israel as so many of them do.
What matters do you speak out about and what matters do you support within and outside the community?
As I have mentioned, I spend much time volunteering. One of the most defining experiences I have had was the half year I spent working on Karaván project at Artemisszió Foundation. We went to hold workshops to migrants and asylum seekers in Vámosszabadi to help their integration. To continue this work, I volunteered in the following summer during the migrant crisis and I still volunteer for Menedék (Menedék Migránsokat Segítő Egyesüket – Hungarian Association for Migrants) and for a short while I traveled to Bicske to teach Hungarian as part of a research project. My thesis also deals with a similar topic: I try to explore the integration and identity of the Hungarians in Israel in order to help those who are about to participate in Aliyah to Israel. As a Jew I volunteer at Haver. Another important project for me is the Muslim Jewish Conference, where I also volunteer. One hundred Jewish and Muslim young people spend a week in different groups and discuss given topics in panel discussions and in the framework of different workshops. I also lead the Righteous Among the Nations walks in the ghetto, where I talk about the holocaust and the Righteous people’s activities to students and foreigners.