A K.I.S.S. for Budapest

By Hallie Baron


Gates around the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park

Detail of the gates around the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park at the Dohány Street Synagogue.

Budapest has thousands upon thousands of Jews, many of whom are just discovering their heritage, eager to connect and build Jewish life, and learning how to form a community in their city.  This is the essence and ultimate goal of why the Federation is funding a second year of a Leadership Development program in Budapest, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).  As a former Jewish communal professional and now a communications consultant to many Bay Area Jewish organizations, when I got a call from a member of the Federation’s Israel & Global Committee, asking me to go to Budapest, I jumped at the chance to see how I could help this “rebirthing” Jewish community.  My task:  To provide a hands-on, accessible, communications training program for Jewish communal professionals and volunteers in Budapest.   When I say “rebirthing” it’s meant to be inspiring. The majority of those working or volunteering in Jewish organizations is a new generation of young Jews – many who know that they have Jewish genes but no frame of reference for the traditions and practices that go with that. They’ve seen a need, decided to get involved, looked to connect to their own heritage – and the result is a number of small organizations focused on the cultural and social aspects of being Jewish in Hungary today. Everything from a Jewish theatre to family camp to a JCC has sprung up – some supported by the JDC, some struggling to make it on their own, all working toward the goal of revitalization.

Budapest JCC

The "Balinthaz" of Budapest, Hungarian for "JCC"

THE CHALLENGE My challenge in this unique Jewish setting? To translate communications resources, practices and ideas that we take completely for granted here in the U.S. That meant:

  1. teaching marketing basics to professionals and volunteers who are not experienced in this field
  2. helping them work in a community and culture that has no charitable giving or collaborative practices
  3. encouraging them to think creatively about how to reach a Jewish population that is mostly in hiding or has buried its Jewish roots.

And we had to do all of that in just two afternoon sessions (for the professionals) and two shorter evening sessions (for volunteers).  But together, we were definitely up to the task.

The “House of Remembrance” in a small town outside of Budapest

The “House of Remembrance” in a small town outside of Budapest

HOW WE DID IT Held at the Budapest JCC – Balinthaz in Hungarian – the training was an intense and extremely productive two days. For the professionals, the first session was filled with many questions designed to help figure out what they knew, their current practices and the resources at their disposal. Day two involved putting that information into action by creating a basic communications strategy for a real or fictitious organization and then talking through the outcomes. For the volunteers, the evening sessions were abbreviated but still focused on discussing the same principles and encouraging them to network and share resources. In Hungarian culture there is a very strong belief that more words equal greater intelligence, a trait I believe common to all humans but perhaps not as ingrained anymore elsewhere. Confronting that belief head on, we talked about how you can seem very intelligent without being verbose – how to create messaging around their organizations that is creative, informative and impactful but doesn’t overwhelm the audience or try to convey too much information at once. We worked on creating “elevator speeches” and talked about the benefits of cross department/organization collaboration to maximize resources and mailing lists. And we talked a lot about the importance of word choices. In the end, it was the simplest of communication principles that made the biggest impact on the participants. I introduced the K.I.S.S. principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid – and you could literally see the light bulbs go on around the room. After the laughter died down around the wording of the concept, we talked about Nike as the classic example of this simple yet incredibly effective messaging. When we went back over what we talked about with that context, the ideas began to flow about ways to change their messaging, how they approach their audiences and much more.

THE RESULTS If the buzz in the hallways of the JCC was an indication, seeds have been sown to help these professionals and volunteers communicate more effectively, collaborate with each other to maximize their limited resources and take a new approach to understanding their audiences. The net-net result? Hopefully a widening of the “new” Jewish tent in Budapest and beyond. For me, the take away was much more profound. As a seasoned communications professional who takes the freedoms of being Jewish for granted, it was without a doubt one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. To make even a small impact on a Jewish community that has been through so much is gratifying enough. To know that those in the training sessions will K.I.S.S. their communications efforts going forward and have a truly meaningful impact on that community – that’s priceless. On a final note, the whole experience was made even more gratifying and personal when I was able to share Kol Nidre services with the small but growing Reform congregation of Bet Orim, led by Rabbi Ferenc Raj, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El in Berkeley. In what only proves that the world is indeed a very small place, the president of the board of Bet Orim attended one of the evening sessions and told me that Rabbi Raj was teaching Torah in the next room. The Rabbi, Hungarian by birth and rabbinical training, spends half the year in Budapest helping build this congregation. After we played Jewish geography about who we knew in common in the East Bay and San Francisco, he asked me to join them for services and of course I accepted. Sharing Kol Nidre with him and the Beit Orim congregation – made up mostly of young families and individuals who are just discovering their Jewish roots – was incredibly moving and inspiring. It gave me great hope for the future of the Jewish community in Budapest and Hungary and made me very proud to have helped in some small way.

Categories: Overseas


November 03, 2011


The Federation