Still today, Budapest has a total of 16 functional synagogues. They belong to different factions of the local Jewish communities (after 1868, Hungarian Jews split into three factions because they held different views on religious reforms and the desired level of assimilation into local Hungarian society). But all three communities left beautiful, and often artistically significant marks on the city. In 15 minutes, one can walk the "synagogue triangle", that is, visit the main synagogues of the former Jewish Quarter that belonged to the three separate Jewish communities.
Of Buda's three medieval synagogues, unfortunately only one has survived, a small prayer room, which operates as a museum today. The most elaborate, a late-Gothic building from the 15th century, is currently buried beneath a residential home. Medieval Jewish Prayer Room (location; 10 AM to 5 PM, closed on Monday and Tuesday; HUF 800 admission): This Jewish prayer room is located right in the heart of Buda's medieval Jewish Quarter. Formerly a residential home, it was used by the Sephardic community during the city's Ottoman occupation. (The Ashkenazis attended a more sizeable synagogue just across the street, but it was destroyed by the Holy League in 1686 during the siege to retake the city.) Highlights are the maroon wall paintings with Hebrew inscriptions, which convey the congregation's existential worries and quest for peace. Don't miss the medieval Jewish tombstones and the restored Gothic columns displayed in the courtyard.
Dohány Street “Neolog” Synagogue (location; opening hours vary, closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission, which includes a guided tour to the synagogue and the entry to the museum): This enormous building, the largest synagogue in Europe today, looks eerily similar to a Christian church as it was commissioned by the assimilated (Neolog) faction of the local Jewish community. Its towers, pulpits, organ, and lack of mechitza (lattice separating women from men) would be non-starters in any orthodox synagogue. While the congregation today has about 300 active members, it still gets packed during the high holidays, particularly Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
A plaque on the front façade shows where once stood the house where Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel, was born. The colonnade connecting Heroes’ Temple and the Central Synagogue encloses the Garden of Remembrance, now a mass grave for Jews murdered by Hungarians Nazis in 1944/45. In the weeping willow memorial, the names of holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed on the leaves, and the granite Tablets of Stone are symbolically stripped of their content. Behind the willow tree is the symbolic tomb of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the holocaust.
Attached to the synagogue is the Jewish Museum (entry is included in the admission ticket). It's a recently-modernized exhibit of Jewish relics from Hungary, highlighting objects from everyday Jewish life and those connected to the High Holidays, like ornate Kiddush cups, Torah scrolls, and shofars. The highlights are the ornate seder plate made by Hungarian porcelain manufacturer Herendi, and the tombstone from the 3rd century A.D. depicting a carved menorah.
Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue (location; opening hours vary, closed on Saturday; HUF 1,000 admission): The impressive art nouveau synagogue from 1913 dominates the winding Kazinczy Street, which has long been home to the orthodox Jewish community of Budapest (and more recently to Budapest nightlife). The interior has pale-blue walls, stained glass windows, and benches adorned with Hungarian art nouveau motifs. Enter through 35 Dob or 29-31 Kazinczy Street to see all the facilities attached to the fortress-like edifice, which include a kosher butcher shop and convenience store, a kosher restaurant (Hanna), two prayer rooms, and an ornate wrought iron canopy (chuppah) under which a Jewish couple stands during their wedding ceremony. Today, the congregation has only about 70 members.
Rumbach Street “Status quo ante” Synagogue (location; closed for renovation works): Don't miss this unobtrusive, yet grand synagogue from 1872 designed by renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner. Its members consisted of the “status quo ante” faction of Budapest Jews, who favored some religious reforms but were put off by the less traditional design of the Dohány Street Synagogue nearby. Islamic ornaments dominate both the exterior, with minaret-like towers, and the interior, where the dome is held by eight slender Moorish style Alhambra columns. This style is a reminder of the medieval architecture of Sephardic Jews in the Iberian Peninsula. Also take a look at the Tablets of Stone at the top of the façade. The building is currently shut down for much-needed renovations works.
Salgótarjani Street Jewish Cemetery (location; 8 AM to 4 PM, closed on Saturday; free admission): Opened in 1874, it’s the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in Budapest (mostly for Neolog Jews, but there’re some orthodox graves as well). This is where many of the Jewish industrial and political elite was buried before WWII, as indicated by the fancy marble and granite mausoleums designed by leading architects at the time, particularly Béla Lajta. The highlight is the stunning cubic structure of the funeral home (ohel) at the entrance. Most tombs are partially collapsed, abandoned, and overgrown by ivy and creeper as family members died during the holocaust or fled from Hungary. This state of semi-wilderness is a moving reminder of how the Holocaust erased what had been an essential part of Budapest.
Mikveh at Kazinczy Street (location; advance registration necessary to use the bath at +36 20 961 5419): Budapest’s only Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) is located right next to Szimpla, the world famous ruin bar. To meet strict religious requirements, the bath uses only natural water from rainwater collected on the roof, and spring water through wells drilled in the garden. The bath, built in 1928, was partially refurbished in 2004. The renovation work was supervised by a New York-based Hasidic mikveh specialist who commuted every week between New York and Budapest.
Budapest University of Jewish Studies (location; opening hours vary, call +36 1 318 7049, extension 110 to schedule a visit; €10 admission): In 1877 the assimilated (Neolog) section of Budapest Jews opened a Rabbinical Seminary with the aim to educate a secularly-inclined clergy. Later, the institute became the sole rabbinical seminary to operate in communist Europe. Today 180 students are enrolled, with an academic staff of 80. Departments range from rabbinic to Jewish studies, and social work. Besides the charming synagogue hidden inside the building, the university has one of the world's most complete libraries on Jewish topics. Guided tours can be arranged through the university on the phone number listed above.
Dessewffy Street "Porters'" Orthodox Synagogue (location; opening hours vary, usually 7 AM to 8 AM; call +36 30 200 7674 to schedule a visit; no admission): Hidden behind a one-story nondescript facade from the 1840s, the Dessewffy Street Synagogue is the oldest orthodox synagogue in Budapest. It was known as the "porters' synagogue" as many of its congregants were carriers at the nearby Nyugati railway station. The bima (reading table) is made of Carrara marble. Today, with only three active members, they are unable to assemble a minyan but meet every weekday morning for prayer. Visits can be arranged through the phone number listed above.