THE RUMBACH SEBESTYÉN STREET SYNAGOGUE
Rumbach Sebestyén Street 11-13.
BUILT BETWEEN: 1869 and 1872
In the second half of the 19th century, one of the most important aims of the Jewish community of Pest was to move out of the increasingly crowded Orczy House, which no longer reflected the actual economic status of the community or satisfied its social aspirations. Until the Enlightenment (Haskalah), the Jewry of Europe had been cautious not to take any steps that might allow synagogues to play the role of the temple in Jerusalem. The ideas of the Haskalah, however, led to fundamental changes in the relationship of the Jewry to life in the diaspora and the societies around them. The role of the synagogues changed and gained increasing importance and value. The community began to regard the buildings as a means of expressing their presence within the larger society, and the architectural designs of synagogues became a metaphorical space for rivalries among the various religious tendencies within the community.
The 1868/69 General Jewish Congress of Hungary established as one of its principal aims the creation of a unified national organization representing the Jewry and the establishment of clear relations between the Jewry and the state on constitutional and legal principles. The organizational questions that arose, however, also touched on the attitudes of the Jewry towards modernization and therefore also religious questions and conflicts, and this led to the division of the Jewry into essentially three different groups. The synagogues on Dohány Street, Rumbach Sebestyén Street and Kazinczy Street are symbolic monuments of this division within the Pest Jewish Communities. Modern historians of the Jewish community of the city refer to the part of the city in which one finds the three buildings as the “Pest Jewish triangle.” From the 19th century to the present day, the three monumental synagogues have created a center of Jewish life that is unique in Europe.
The construction of the synagogues began with the building on Dohány Street, which became the base for Neologs and members of the congress who represented reform views and encouraged assimilation. In 1871, members of the Orthodox community, who rejected the organizational reforms and the idea of involving themselves with the secular sciences (indeed, they rejected the notion that Jewish identity should be considered a question of religious belief), created their own national organization with the approval of the National Assembly. In 1913, they moved out of the Orczy House and into the central Orthodox synagogue on Kazinczy Street.
The branch of Judaism that referred to itself as conservative did not create an independent organization to represent its interests and views, but it regarded itself as distinct from the other two branches. These differences played a role in the construction of the Rumbach synagogue. Using donated funds, the Pest Jewish Community had a synagogue built that was more conservative in its mentality. The building, which was large enough to hold 1,260 people, was referred to at the time simply as Rombach. Modern in its style, it was built between 1869 and 1872 on the basis of designs by Otto Wagner, a young Austrian architect who later emerged as one of the leading figures of Viennese Art Nouveau (Jugendstil). Wagner had studied with Ludwig Förster, who designed the synagogue on Dohány Street.
As it had been in the case of the synagogue on Dohány Street, the committee that examined the plans was skeptical about the unusual architectural features, including for instance the strength and reliability of the cast-iron structure. It was considered dangerous, so permission to build was only given after modifications had been made to the plans.
The edifice was one of the most expensive buildings of the decade, and not only in Hungary, but in all of East Central Europe. The construction of the lavish Orthodox synagogue in the city of Győr, which is also octagonal and has similar dimensions, cost only 134,000 “valtóforint” (a form of paper money in use at the time), including all of the supplementary buildings, whereas the synagogue on Rumbach Street cost 350,000 váltóforint. The rivalry between the two synagogues took many forms. For instance, the casing in the Rumbach synagogue that held 24 Torah scrolls was intended as an expression of the prosperity of the people who frequented the building, as were the columns (gilded with 16-carat gold). The rivalry also found expression in the invitation of orators who were more traditional in their leanings, though at the same time the chorus and the orations, which were delivered in the vernacular, were clear indications of a more moderate attitude towards tradition. In their everyday lives, the members of the community that frequented the synagogue were more inclined towards assimilation, both from the perspective of language and the perspective of some secular customs, but in the practice of their religion they were faithful to tradition. Thus in their lifestyles, they resembled the Neologs, but from the perspective of their faith they adhered to the Orthodox traditions. The ideas and aspirations of the community that used the synagogue on Rumbach Street are perhaps best summed up in the document that was placed under the Ark of the Covenant, according to which the synagogue was created “to maintain and strengthen peace, concord, and unity in the religious community.”
In 1941, the victims one of the first deportations to take place in Hungary were taken from the building, as indicated by a commemorative plaque on one of the walls. Jews who could not produce evidence of Hungarian citizenship (many had escaped to Hungary from Slovakia, Poland, Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, and other areas) were detained and taken to transit stations. The synagogue was used as one such transit station. The Hungarian authorities deported the roughly sixteen thousand internees to Podolia (historic region, now in Ukraine), where most of them were murdered in a massacre that took place just outside the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi.
When the ghetto was created in Budapest, religious life was revived in the synagogues in Rumbach Sebestyén Street and Dohány Street. Services were held on Friday evenings and on Saturdays. The synagogue survived the Second World War with only minor damage. The octagonal space remained in use until 1959, when it was closed by the community. Indeed, the community, which had shrunk to roughly 100 people because of emigration, moved to the first floor of the building on the street, which they used as a space for prayer. Heroes Temple, neighboring the synagogue in Dohány Street, was used for larger ceremonies and occasions. In the late 1970s, the roof of the building, which was in increasingly poor condition, gave way in several places, and most of the interior furnishings were ruined. In 1982, vandals broke into the building, so the dwindling community decided to move to the prayer room on the ground floor of the Neolog Talmud-Torah building. Thus, today the community has completed fused with the community of the synagogue on Dohány Street, with whom they pray together in the building on Wesselényi Street.
In the 1980s, the Jewish community sold the building. The new owner restored it for the most part, but in response to public protests the investors did not put the building to new use. In 1992, after the company had gone bankrupt, the building came into the possession of the State Property Agency, and in 2006 it again became the property of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZsH). Today it is open to visitors, and it is occasionally home to cultural events, but it has not yet undergone complete restoration.
See the artist: Zsófi Szemző
By Zita Mara Vadasz