Fifty years after becoming a rabbi and more than 40 years after being forced out of Hungary, Ferenc Raj intends to persist at his life’s central mission: to teach young people about Judaism, as he has done for more than two decades in the Bay Area and for a decade in his native land.
As Raj is feted in Berkeley and elsewhere this month for his half-century of rabbinical work, he is looking ahead rather than behind. Beth El is honoring him during Shabbat services on March 10, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis will mark his accomplishments at its annual convention March 19-22 in Atlanta.
“I always look forward,” Raj said. “When I was ordained, I learned my main job was to serve the youth and ensure the future of the Jewish people, to build a Jewish future. Not for myself, for generations to come, to ensure there will be future Judaism.”
Raj, 74, fled Hungary in 1972 after the Communist authorities warned him against teaching Judaism to youngsters. He had been meeting with them in coffee shops and private homes, teaching Torah and preparing them for their bar mitzvahs even though such lessons were prohibited.
“I was given an ultimatum to do what they wanted or be jailed,” he said. “They wanted me to not teach the young. They said it’s OK to teach the elderly. This I could not tolerate.”
Now he is teaching the youth of Budapest again.
In 2007 he became the founding rabbi of Bet Orim, a small Reform congregation in the Hungarian capital.
“I really didn’t want to go there, but I fell in love with them, a wonderful community of young people and old people,” Raj said. “There’s no building, no official status under Hungarian law. We meet in the local JCC. We are a virtual synagogue.”
Rabbi Reuben Zellman, the music director at Beth El, said the Reform Berkeley congregation understands the significance of Raj’s work in his homeland.
“I know that certainly everyone at Beth El is delighted and appreciative of the work he is doing in Hungary and appreciates the importance of people who, especially from Eastern Europe, are willing to go back and do the hard work of rehabilitation and reconstruction in that area decimated by the Holocaust,” Zellman said.
“There’s a great deal of really important work to be done with creating a new Jewish life in Europe and welcoming people into it. At one point, the idea that there would be a future for Judaism in Europe was not certain, and now with people like Rabbi Raj doing this work, all across the continent there is a slowly growing resurgence of Jewish life. It’s very exciting.”
Raj’s life story has been one of survival and resistance against authoritarianism imposed by Hungarian rulers ranging from Nazis to Communists.
Born in war-torn Budapest in 1942, Raj and most of his family survived only due to the personal intercession of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Raj’s uncle, the chief rabbi of a large congregation in the adjacent community of Ujpest, died in a concentration camp.
There’s a great deal of really important work to be done with creating a new Jewish life in Europe and welcoming people into it.
“Because of my uncle, who was murdered in Auschwitz, both my brother and I decided to become rabbis,” he said.
He learned Hebrew from tutors and at 16 became a teacher, often going to the Israeli Embassy in Budapest to surreptitiously get books and resources while pretending to be getting medicine for his grandmother. He was ordained in 1967, but a few years later he ran afoul of the authorities and had to leave Hungary.
Raj landed in Brooklyn, New York, working at a Reform congregation there for 14 years and then at a synagogue in Belmont, Massachusetts, for another seven years.
Raj came to Berkeley in 1995, working at Beth El until his retirement in 2007 (he has continued as rabbi emeritus). During his tenure, he focused on getting the synagogue to build ties with other religious organizations in the community and on moving into a new facility in 2005.
“I was very happy when we dedicated this synagogue,” Raj said, showing off Beth El’s current home to a visitor. “I am perhaps happier than Moses, because he was able to see the Promised Land and I was able to enter the Promised Land with my synagogue. We built it for future generations.”
Raj, who said the 50 years “passed by so fast,” still has plenty to keep him busy both in Berkeley and Budapest.
“His own life is about teaching Torah and Judaism under very challenging circumstances, so to many people he’s a source of inspiration,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who succeeded Raj as Beth El’s senior rabbi in 2007. “He has been a bridge for many people who were European immigrants who found themselves in a new country.
“Rather than turning away from it, he has continued to serve. Most people who make 50 years as a rabbi are at a stage where they are mostly looking back on accomplishments. He’s still doing the same work, contributing to the revitalization of Jewish life where others sought to destroy it.”