I am a Jewish teenager from Hungary, a post-socialist country with a totalitarian government. As a result of our historical experiences with soft dictatorships and the current regime’s rhetoric, Hungarian society is suffering from a strong level of passiveness, a general attitude of being disengaged, and not raising one’s voice. Meanwhile, political and civic organizing are slowly being banished from the country, through stigmatization in both official rhetoric and legislation.
I believe an attitude that is so deeply embedded in our culture can most effectively be changed through the education system — which unfortunately is also outdated in Hungary (most of the reforms done in the last decades are now being reversed, worsening the situation).
To express our concerns about this, we organized three major student protests this year, where I gave speeches promoting the culture of communication and cooperation for education, a cause greater than party politics. Even though the protests were heavily criticized by governmental mediums, the number of participants grew each time, reaching 50,000 at the third protest. Through this, we helped turn education into a topic of public discussion.
I recently visited the Baltimore Jewish community through SOS International’s High School Morim Limmud Program. I had multiple personal goals for the visit: First, as the program’s mission states, I wanted to get connected with a Jewish community from another side of the world to discover more about the American Jewish way of life. Second, I wanted to reconnect with my friends who came to Hungary during the previous phase of the project last year. Finally, as a student representative and activist, I wanted to observe the American education system and see how it prepares students for life and for contributing to society.
During my stay in Baltimore, I got the chance to shadow students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in their classes. I was able to observe many interesting, innovative, or sometimes simply different elements of the American education system compared to the one in my country. The biggest difference I saw was the interaction between students and teachers. The main goal of some lessons I visited was to ask questions and debate. The most fascinating part was that the students actually did have questions, ones that often took up all of the allotted class time. And instead of just answering these frequently complex and mostly theoretical questions, the teachers opened discussions, leading to engaging conversations and intense debates.
Even though I knew I was in a relatively elite school, encountering the differences in our cultures and education systems was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. The whole school life seemed to be encouraging students to become active and engaged. This feeling only escalated as I got to know school life at Beth Tfiloh in more depth. I was delighted to see the classrooms and halls overflowing with motivational posters, advertisements for countless student clubs, and around 20 students giving public announcements at the general assembly before Shabbat.
A day after visiting Washington, D.C., and seeing the physical representations of American democracy on Capitol Hill, participants in our program were given the opportunity to meet and talk with Sen. Ben Cardin, who honored us with a visit. At first we all were a bit quiet under the weight of the situation; after all, such opportunities rarely exist for us even with our own politicians. But after seeing that we were being treated as equal partners in a discussion — as opposed to being on the receiving end of the hierarchy-reinforcing rhetoric we often experience in our country — asking questions became easy and exciting. We openly discussed Hungary’s so-called “illiberal democracy” and its issues with media and free speech, then shifted towards Russia and violations of democratic values. These tendencies are especially worrisome for our Jewish community because, in our part of the world, growing authoritarianism usually means intolerance, scapegoating, witch hunting, and downright racism, phenomena in which Jews traditionally play the victim’s role.
I feel that the values I saw during my visit here play a key role in creating active and conscious citizens, the foundation every well-functioning democracy is built on. Spending time in such an environment, while being surrounded by amazing friends and teachers always eager to help in anything, really inspired me and my Hungarian peers. We are coming home filled with motivation and project ideas, looking forwarding to progressing in our Jewish identity, helping our community, and improving our society.
SOS International is a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching next-generation Jewish identity and values through international exchanges. Learn more at https://sosintl.org/.
By Daniel Kallo
Daniel Kallo is a student at Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium in Budapest, Hungary, and a participant in SOS International's High School Morim Limmud Program. He served as Hungary's youth delegate to the EU last year, and is currently serving his fifth term as a representative at the Hungarian Independent Student Parliament.