Religion & Jewish Life | World

Retracing Herzl’s footsteps in Europe, Israelis find Diaspora life has much to offer

The Klezmer fusion band Butterfly Effect entertaining Israelis on Herzl tour at Fogashaz, one of the "ruin pubs" of Budapest's Jewish quarter. (Alex Weisler)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — Sometimes it takes a Zionist organization to show Israeli Jews that Israel isn’t the only place where Jews have a future.

At least that’s what the World Zionist Organization and Habonim Dror, the labor Zionist youth organization, managed to do with a whirlwind trip this month for about four dozen Israelis that retraced the footsteps of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, through Europe.

The idea of the trip, which took the Israeli 20-somethings through four countries in five days, was to consider whether and how Herzl’s Zionist ideals can help Israel resolve the troubles it is facing now. But the trip also was about helping young Israelis move beyond an Israel-only view of world Jewry, organizers said.

Deborah Laks, a Costa Rica native who now lives in Tel Aviv, said the tour convinced her that Jews can make a home in Europe.

“What I’ve seen of young Jews and what they’re creating in Europe — they’re more useful here than they would be in Israel,” Laks told JTA. “If they go to Israel, who’s going to do it here?”

The bus tour started with Herzl’s birthplace in Budapest before moving on to Vienna, where Herzl studied law; Basel, Switzerland, where the First Zionist Congress was held; and Paris, where Herzl covered the infamous Dreyfus Affair as a correspondent for an Austrian newspaper.

“Zionism in its very essence is a concern with Jewish peoplehood. That’s not going to happen only in the land of Israel,” said David Breakstone, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, which helped organize the trip. Funding came from Habonim Dror and the participants themselves.

Before the trip, Breakstone said, many participants believed they would see only “abandoned synagogues and Jewish graveyards. But the focus of our trip is Jewish future and Jewish revival, not persecution and the Holocaust.

“We certainly weren’t trying to encourage anyone to devalue the importance of aliyah, but I think it’s important that they understand that those who do not move to Israel are not necessarily abandoning a Jewish future.”

The trip also was meant to help participants forge a personal connection with Herzl’s life and writings.

“For us, it’s very important that Herzl be understood not just as this incredible historical figure that started the Zionist movement, but also as a man of values whose ideas continue to be compelling today,” Breakstone said.

The WZO’s first Herzl-centric European tour was held just over a year ago, but it wasn’t focused on Israelis. Participants on this month’s Israel-focused trip said the tour helped them think about old questions in new ways.

“The question of whether or not Europe can be a home for Jews — Herzl asked that question in 1890, but now it’s 2011,” said participant Tamar Levi, a Vancouver native who now lives in Hadera, Israel. “It’s a post-Holocaust reality, but the question for them,” she said of European Jews, “is still very present in their lives.”

In Budapest, the group visited the iconic sites of historic Hungarian Jewry, like the city’s mammoth Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in the world, and the cast-iron Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube depicting the shoes of those shot into the river between 1944 and 1945.

But they also met with nine young Hungarians leading the charge to revive Jewish life in the Hungarian capital, which has seen an astonishing Jewish revival in the two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The group also went to listen to a klezmer fusion band in one of the city’s “ruin pubs,” hipster hotspots housed in abandoned buildings in the Jewish Quarter.

Breakstone said the trip complements a larger Herzl revival under way in Israel, with Tel Aviv graffiti featuring modern twists on his famous slogans, a college activist group called If You Will It and a satirical TV show featuring an actor dressed as Herzl serving in a Dr. Phil-type role.

Ten years ago, he said, Herzl was barely mentioned in any real way; now he’s part of Israeli culture and politics again.

“This is all part of a reaction to people waking up and saying, where did we go wrong?” Breakstone said. “We’re kind of rudderless. We need to find some direction again.”

Zionist organizations such as Habonim Dror and WZO see Herzl’s vision of an Israel focused on human dignity and social justice as the answer. And they view trips like the Herzl European tour as the perfect way to energize young Israeli Zionists about the man and his legacy.

“There’s a need to replace the old guard with a new generation,” said Silvio Joskowicz, Habonim Dror’s secretary-general. “We’ve come here to receive inspiration for what we must do. We didn’t just come here for a history tour.”