On Wednesday, June 28, one of Hungary’s most innovative and vibrant Jewish establishments was nearly shuttered by the local municipal government.
The place, Aurora, might seem to be an unlikely linchpin for Jewish life in Budapest, given that it is, well, a bar. But unlike most bars, Aurora serves as the incubator for a dazzling array of Jewish programming and human rights activism in Hungary’s capital. This is because the bar is owned by Marom, a local Jewish association, and provides 80 percent of the revenue for its Jewish cultural events, concerts, discussions, debates, and theater. Moreover, Aurora’s building also houses an egalitarian synagogue, hosts regular Shabbat events, and offers a variety of Jewish holiday programming and text studies. And on top of all that, Aurora serves as a sort of NGO headquarters, providing a home for some of Hungary’s top human rights organizations.
In fact, while it may look like any other alcohol-dispensing establishment on the surface, “Aurora is actually an NGO hub,” explained Marom chair Adam Schonberger. “We have 10 resident organizations, all of them active in social and human rights, like Rainbow Mission which organizes all the Pride events in Budapest, and Roma Press Center, which is the press center for the Roma minority, Hungary’s largest minority.” Beyond those groups housed in its walls, Aurora works with other NGOs and activists to provide “infrastructure, supplies, networking possibilities and rooms to use, either for a very low price or for free,” Schonberger said. There are no other such facilities in Hungary.
Between its cultural, political, and Jewish programming, Aurora has become one of the hippest spots in all of Budapest (as this reporter, who visited in 2014, can attest). And all of this is funded almost entirely by a bar—one that the local municipal government just shut down on a pretext.
On June 10, police raided Aurora, barred the doors, and searched the pockets and bags of approximately 120 patrons. As one would expect, they found small amounts of marijuana on a handful of individuals. As one would not normally expect, they promptly used this incident as justification for revoking the entire business license of Aurora, preventing it from selling food and drink and thus placing in jeopardy the Jewish and human rights programming it underwrites.
“We knew that if you’re doing something in Hungary that is related to migrants, LGBTQ rights, to Jews, it would be described as a leftist liberal thing which the government would want to banish from Hungary,” said Schonberger. “We didn’t know they could go this far. But we knew that something could happen and actually this was the worst case scenario.”
The move came as a shock to Marom, Aurora, and their staff. “We didn’t do anything,” said Schonberger. “We didn’t have any criminal offense. We haven’t had problems with the tax center. There wasn’t even anything against us for being too loud from the neighbors. There was no reason. And we lost 80 percent of our income.”
The closure has taken a toll on the young Jews who run Aurora, Schonberger added. “We are very tired, much of staff is not sleeping, and many do not know if they will have salaries in the future.” But they have also already begun to fight back.
Shortly after the closure, Schonberger and his team launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the shortfall in income, so that they will not have to shut down Marom’s and Aurora’s activities. One can donate via credit card and Paypal in Hungarian forints here (tip: $18 is approximately 5,000 forints). Aurora requires at minimum $3,500 a month to avoid eviction. In just one week, it has already raised one month’s worth of funding through small donations, but Marom will need significantly more to keep the establishment open for the year while it fights the suspension of Aurora’s business license in the courts.
“We think that the best revenge is not to close the place and to maintain the place, without its incomes, because that would mean that they can’t do whatever they want and there is a need for this place,” said Schonberger.
Donations towards the campaign can be made here.