August 23, 2010
by Abigail Pickus
Budapest is bursting with Jewish life and culture.
Just ask Szilvi Somlai.
Born and raised in Budapest, she works as the post-Taglit Birthright Israel and Masa Israel coordinator for the Jewish Agency in Hungary. She is also an integral part of the team spearheading the Israeli Cultural Institute (ICI), an exciting and wide-reaching center launched by the Jewish Agency that opens its doors September 1, 2010.
“I grew up in a traditional Jewish family, which is quite rare for Hungary,” the 29-year-old Somlai told the Jewish Agency in a phone interview from her office in Budapest. “And I was raised to be a Zionist from the second I was born because both of my parents are very Zionist and they raised both brother and me to feel same way.”
Some of her first memories are of the Passover seder at her aunt’s house, which was a “big happening.” Somlai attended the Lauder/Joint International Jewish Youth Camp  in Hungary, participated in Jewish youth movements, and has spent significant amounts of time in Israel. She participated on a Taglit-Birthright trip in 2006 and spent the 2007-8 academic year on a Masa Israel Haifa University program – which does not include regular visits to Israel for work and pleasure.
“I try to go to Israel at least every two to three months, whenever I have the extra money for a flight,” said Somlai who is currently also pursuing a master’s degree in sociology.
Her mother was born in a small village near the Ukraine and her father was born in Budapest. Both sets of grandparents are Holocaust survivors with remarkable stories of loss and survival.
“I think in this region everyone has such an amazing kesher (connection) [to Judaism and the past] – and an amazing story,” she said.
There are an estimated 100,000 Jews living in Hungary, the majority in Budapest, which boasts three Jewish day schools. But Somlai says the number is even bigger if one expands the boundaries to neighboring communities in Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Currently, her work within the Jewish community is devoted to creating programs for young people who have spent time in Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip. The concept was spearheaded by Eran El-Bar, the Jewish Agency’s emissary for central Europe, with the goal of building on the momentum so many youth feel after their meaningful experiences in Israel. One such program pairs young people with Holocaust survivors for regular meetings in Budapest. The meetings end with an intergenerational trip to Israel.
Many Jewish youth from Hungary are taking advantage of the Taglit experience. “We are sending a lot of people to Israel,” said Somlai, who says they send five to six groups every year, which for a central European country is a “huge” number. Four groups from Hungary have visited Israel this summer alone and there is a waiting list for upcoming trips.
As for the Israeli Cultural Institute (ICI), which opens to much fanfare in September, it will be the center for everything Israel related, from Hebrew lessons to lectures, concerts, theater and art exhibit. It will also be a hub for socializing, especially in its Israeli café.
“There is really nothing like this,” said Somlai. “Our main goal is hasbara (public relations). This will be the best way to reach out to the non-Jewish community in Hungary to show them the positive face of Israel and how amazing Israel really is.”
ICI will also offer a host of engaging programs, including one on Israeli pop culture run by Somlai.
“We aim to attract everyone, from the most intellectual person who connects to the highest art to the young person who will connect to [the Israeli rock band] Mashina,” she said, adding that their intended age range is from “zero to 100.”