From Budapest to Woodcliff Lake
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From Budapest to Woodcliff Lake

Rabbi Andre Ungar's career crossed continents, spanned streams

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Rabbi Andre Ungar

Rabbi Andre Ungar, a courtly man with a spade-shaped beard and impeccable manners, speaks with what seems at first to be pure and crystalline Queen’s English, precise and beautiful.

Listen carefully, though, and you hear something else underneath, something somehow both more and less familiar.

It’s a Hungarian accent, giving depth and context to his speech.

Rabbi Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, is a complicated man, an intellectual with a well-earned passion for social justice and a life that took him to five countries in four continents before allowing him to settle here, in this one.

He retired nine years ago after 41 years at Temple Emanuel; he will be honored there this Sunday, June 1, as he writes the last letter in the shul’s new Torah scroll, itself the product of 15 months of communal work. (The ceremony is set to begin at 1:45.)

Rabbi Ungar’s story began in 1929 in Budapest, where he was born into a family that was wealthy, well educated, and deeply connected both to the Jewish community and to Hungarian society. His father’s father, Reuven, was an Orthodox rabbi who served the small town of Magtedeny for 50 years; of his eight children, all the girls became teachers. One son was a doctor, another one was a dentist. Two were lawyers. One of those lawyers, Bela Ungar, was Andre’s father.

His mother’s father, Ignatz Rujder, “was a rich man, the kosher sausage king of eastern Europe,” Rabbi Ungar said. Like many descendants of European families who were wealthy before the Holocaust, he can talk about his family’s lost wealth with detachment. That world no longer exists.

“My mother,” Frederika Rujder Ungar, “was an elegant grande dame, a housewife European-style, with furs and crystal and a great earthy wisdom,” he continued. “She went to the opera at least once a week; she kept up with the theater and fashion. She would read the latest books by and against Freud.” Her circle was made up of other women like her, wealthy modern Orthodox Jews, assimilated, far from any ghetto, but still somewhat apart.

“She was very beautiful – not quite a Gabor, but very beautiful.” (The Gabor sisters, glamorous, lovely, self-parodying Hungarian Jews, immigrated to the United States before the war and made names for themselves.) “I never found out what her real hair color was – bronze, or red, or brown. It varied.

“She was a very kind-hearted woman,” Rabbi Ungar continued.

“My father, though, was a real intellectual through and through.”

Andre Ungar had a brother, George, and a sister, Judith. “We had a very happy childhood,” he said.

But, of course, history caught up with them.

“Hungary was a little island of freedom in the 1920s and early ’30s, and then it began clouding up as Germany became stronger,” he said. “Refugees came from Czechoslovakia and Poland, but we always thought that it could never happen to us.

“And then, on March 19, 1944, the Germans conquered Hungary, their supposed ally, and within a matter of days the yellow star appeared, and a couple of weeks later the ghetto was established.”

That was the beginning of the short and brutal end of most of the Hungarian Jewish community. But not of the Ungars. Bela Ungar was prescient.

“My father made a very momentous decision,” his son said. “We would not go into the ghetto – we would go into hiding.”

Bela Ungar found an apartment at the other end of Budapest from where the family had lived – the poor, non-Jewish side of town – and “from about May 1944 to January 1945 we stayed indoors,” although their mother would venture out to the local shops to buy food. Bela had provided the family with false papers, so they were able to pretend not to be Jewish. “We spent a lot of time playing ping pong and reading my father’s library, which he managed to bring with him,” Rabbi Ungar said. “Except for the Jewish books” – which would have been a dangerous sign of his true identity. “We put those books in a case entrusted to the janitor – and of course they vanished,” Rabbi Ungar said ruefully.

The family had only one close call.

“Once, there was a raid on a Friday night, after the candles had been put away. Three Arrow Cross thugs banged on the door at about midnight, said they were beggars, demanded to be let in.” (The Arrow Cross were Hungarian Fascists, and notoriously brutal and anti-Semitic.)

“My father put on a show, said ‘How dare you bang on the door and wake my family in the middle of the night?’ and they were cowed and left.

“My father fainted after they left.”

Rabbi Ungar does not call himself a Holocaust survivor. Some members of his family were victims of the Shoah, but many survived through stratagems like the one his father devised. He is clear and explicit and grateful about the difference between his experiences and those endured by most European Jews, and about how lucky he was. He doesn’t even talk much about the war, he said, because “I haven’t the right to talk about it, compared to the people who went through unbelievable hell.” Out of the 800,000 Jews in Hungary before the Nazis invaded, less than 200,000 survived.

“For us, it was a great adventure,” he said. “We were rather comfortable. We would stand on the balcony and watch Budapest burn as the Americans bombed it. We had a little radio. It was a crime to listen to the BBC, but we did.

“Of course, we never found out about the Shoah’s true scale until afterward. There were rumors about camps and extermination, but many Hungarian Jews thought it was an exaggeration. It makes no sense to kill us. We could understand taking us and making us work – but killing us? And the reports from the BBC were sketchy.”

They could keep up with some developments, though.

“We had some inklings of the war coming closer and closer, and by December of 1944 we heard the Russian guns coming from the east,” he said.

“The Russians came, and they liberated us. They also liberated all the watches available, which we gladly gave them. And then they gang-raped the janitor’s wife. He was an anti-Semite, but she was a nice girl.

“We were walking up and down in the snow-covered yard while three or four Russians had their time with this young woman. We felt terribly pained for her – but to see her husband walk up and down and smoke while it was happening – for a teenager, this is all mysterious.”

After liberation, the family went to a country town in the Hungarian plain, Kecskemet – now a tourist destination, popular for its beauty – because “there was food available there. Budapest was on the verge of starvation.” There, he went back to school, as he had not done during the months in hiding. Until then his schooling had been exclusively among Jews; now he went to a public school, under Catholic auspices, that included among its students Protestants and the few Jewish children whose families returned. “For the first time, I had very dear Christian friends,” he said.

Soon, Rabbi Ungar’s father, who was “extraordinary,” his son says, became the director of the provincial division of the American Joint Distribution Committee, and shortly afterward the family moved back to Budapest. (Later, he also was the legal adviser to the Israeli embassy there.)

“Budapest was free then,” Rabbi Ungar said. “The Russians hadn’t officially taken over yet, and there was freedom of speech and assembly.”

He finished school there, was accepted by the University of Budapest, and planned on making aliyah after graduation – but then he got an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The youth movement Bnei Akiva invited some young European Jews to Manchester, England, for six weeks during the summer, “to study Jewish history, Bible, and other subjects on a rather advanced level,” he said. He had studied English in Hungary and was fairly fluent, so language was not a barrier. The program was coed – “there was a nice girl there we all drooled for without saying so” – and “it was a whole new world.”

So this young man who had never been away from his family was on his own, in a postwar world, in bombed-out but recovering England, in a world in which Israel had been created. Everything was new.

Soon after he got to England, a letter from his father pointed out that the Russians had taken over Czechoslovakia, and it seemed inevitable the Hungary would be next. He should stay in England.

He had a temporary student visa, but England needed agricultural workers. Conveniently enough, Bnei Akiva had established two collective training farms in England, preparing young Jews for their future on kibbutzim in Israel. Andre Ungar went to Thackstead, Essex, “and I worked harvesting wheat and digging ditches.

“Two of my illusions were broken at that place. The first one was about physical labor, which I was doing for the first time in my life. I hadn’t played sports, and I had asthma. I learned that physical labor is hard, and not congenial.

“Second, the English countryside is gorgeous, but after two weeks of it dawn and sunset became routine, and taken for granted, just as it is here in Bergen County.

“Third, collective living is for the birds, so my dream of going to Israel changed. I still wanted that – but the idea of kibbutz living became very questionable.”

He has one particularly fond memory of the farm. “When Israel was established, we danced all night,” he said. “The amazing thing is that the British were detested for their policy during and after the war vis-à-vis Palestine, yet in England, Zionism was particularly free, unhampered, and uncriticized.”

For the next 10 years, Rabbi Ungar lived in England. “I loved it,” he said. “The language, the manners.” He left the farm and enrolled in Jews College, part of University College London. The school taught Hebrew and Aramaic, and it also functioned as a sort of rabbinical seminary. It granted divinity degrees but not smicha – it did not ordain rabbis. That, Rabbi Ungar said, is because “once you are a rabbi, you can poskin” – you can make halachic decisions. That was reserved for the chief rabbi and very few others. The majority of rabbis, as doctors of divinity, could not make those decisions, which kept the system hierarchical, orderly, and deeply British.

He taught Hebrew school, something he deeply detested, because, as he said, “I was absolutely awful.” He tells stories of going to the heart of London’s East End, the old Jewish neighborhood. The day before he took over the class himself, he visited. It was a “dingy room and a man arrives wearing a greasy Homburg and carrying a rolled umbrella. He smashes it on the desk and says ‘shut up,’ in a ripe Cockney accent. Fifty noisy children freeze. And then one of the kids moves, and he hit him, and said” – here Rabbi Ungar’s accent changes from upper-class to Cockney – “‘Git back where you belong.’

“Every time the children made any sound, he says ‘shut up.'”

It was Dickensian.

When Rabbi Ungar showed up in class, he began by telling the children that “there are various ways of teaching and learning. Your previous teacher had his own style. I want to treat you as partners in a sacred enterprise.” By the end of the session, “the roof was shaking.”

Conceding that he was not a good match for a rowdy inner-city school, Rabbi Ungar was dispatched to a school in a cushy suburb, where he worked for Rabbi Isaac Swift, who later became the long-time rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.

Eventually, Rabbi Ungar earned his degree, but “my sense of commitment to Orthodoxy had changed a great deal,” he said. He had always been drawn to philosophy, and eventually enrolled as a full-time philosophy student at the university; as a result, “I developed theological problems.” He became a vegetarian then – “I have been for 67 years,” he said with pride – and the system of animal sacrifice was deeply troubling to him. So were “things like the ordeal of jealousy, and the supposedly sacred acts like destroying all the Midianites.”

He investigated Reform Judaism, “which is like the left wing of the Conservative movement here,” met Rabbi Harold Reinhart and Rabbi Leo Baeck, and “found them very congenial,” he said. He was married by then, and he became an assistant to the rabbis and then an assistant rabbi at the West London Synagogue. In 1954, he earned a doctorate in philosophy, he was ordained as a rabbi, and his daughter, Michele, was born.

It was time to move on.

“At that point, Britain was still the head of an empire, and Jewish communities went to London to find their rabbis,” he said. “I remember seeing an ad in the Jewish Chronicle” – London’s weekly Jewish newspaper – “for the Jewish community in Christchurch, New Zealand.”

He was offered jobs in two shuls, one in Perth, Australia, and the other in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “They both sounded exotic – the end of the world,” he said. He asked his father, who by then had moved to Israel, with the rest of the family. “He said that South Africa seems a little closer, but watch out for cannibals and lions,” so Andre, Corinne, and Michele Ungar got on a plane. When they got off in Port Elizabeth, “half my congregation was there to meet me,” he said. “I was carrying my black Homburg; I never wore it there.”

The community was welcoming, and the synagogue was charming. The young family was set up in a nice apartment in the good part of town until they got their bearings. “Sitting in the kitchen was a young colored girl – God forbid we should have to cook for ourselves. We engaged her, and she stayed for the duration. They were outraged that we paid her more than the going rate – which was still shamefully little.” Soon they had a house and two full-time servants.

“And then I began to make trouble,” Rabbi Ungar said.

In a Passover sermon published in a newspaper, he said that the holiday “is about freedom. To discriminate against people on the basis of color is ethically wrong and unacceptable.

“I began to say things that were critical of apartheid. I began to have some friends who are not white. I took lessons in Xhosa, the local black language, although people thought that instead I should have been learning Afrikaans.”

Some congregants were sympathetic, he said, and others wrote his beliefs off to his youth and inexperience, but others thought that he and his ideas endangered them.

After about a year and a half, he was served with an expulsion order that gave him six weeks to leave the country. Luckily, he already had realized that he did not belong in South Africa, so he had found himself a new job in London, as the rabbi of St. George’s Settlement Synagogue in Whitechapel.

As upscale as West London Synagogue had been, this one was downscale. It was a challenging job; Rabbi Ungar thrived, but eventually found it time once again to move on. He went back to West London, but increasingly he craved something new.

He heard from a new synagogue in Toronto called Temple Emanuel, a breakaway from a well-established, well-known Reform shul astonishingly named Holy Blossom Temple. “They said that if you are willing to take a bet on us, we will take a bet on you,” so once again, he, his wife, and his daughter got on a plane and got off in a new world.

This job did not last long. “They saw I had a yarmulke and a tallit on for the service, and they thought, ‘What have we got?'” It was a misunderstanding about definition. Emanuel had wanted “traditional Reform,” which it defined, quite reasonably, as Classic Reform. Rabbi Ungar defined “traditional Reform” as the nearly Conservative version he knew from England.

“I arrived in the summer, and we found out before the High Holy Days that there was a huge gap between what I wanted and what they wanted. We were very civilized and decent about it, but we decided that this experiment wasn’t working.”

Eventually he became associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, working for Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who was famous for his outspoken work supporting civil rights. Although Rabbi Prinz was ordained by the Reform movement, B’nai Abraham was Conservative, and Rabbi Ungar realized that “I found the modern wing of the Conservative movement more congenial to me” than the Reform. “I found American Reform too extreme and mainstream Conservative a little too right-wing for my tastes.” He joined the Rabbinical Assembly, thus officially joining the Conservative world.

Rabbi Ungar was in Newark from 1959 to 1961, learning from Rabbi Prinz. He lectured all over the country about civil rights and South African Jewry; he was a freedom rider.

“I was one of the 20 rabbis who went to Birmingham” to help register voters, he said. “At an RA convention, one of our friends came to a meeting and said, ‘I have an invitation to go – and so we did.'” (Readers should note that despite Rabbi Ungar’s low-key tone, going on those marches was dangerous. The luckier ones got arrested; the less lucky were beaten.)

“And then we came to a point where it was clear that I was ready to serve my own congregation,” Rabbi Ungar said. He was offered a job at Temple Emanuel, then in Westwood, and he took it.

He stayed there for 44 years. “Very happy years,” he said.

He was divorced soon after the move to Westwood. He met Judy Bell, originally from Houston, a Fulbright scholar then just back from her studies in India. The two soon married, and are the parents of three sons, Ethan of Talmon, Israel, and Eli and Ari, both of Englewood. (He also is the grandfather of 17 and the great-grandfather of two. “I am a very rich man,” he said, beaming.)

When he got to Emanuel, he made it egalitarian. “That’s something I brought with me from South Africa,” he said, and he faced little opposition when he made the change.

About 30 years ago, the shul moved from the building in Westwood, which it had outgrown, to Woodcliff Lake. “We walked from the old synagogue to the new one, with a band playing, and synagogue presidents, old and new, carrying the Torah scrolls,” he said. “It was a memorable day.”

He also taught at many local colleges during his time at Emanuel, and wrote many articles for Jewish journals.

In 2005, Rabbi Ungar retired. Since then he has been reading, learning, studying, thinking – also babysitting, and taking great pleasure in the young life of his huge and expanding family.

“I am very grateful to have had so many good breaks,” he said.

That kind of comment is pure Andre Ungar, many of his colleagues say; he is characterized not only by a startlingly strong intellect and great breadth of knowledge, but also by genuine modesty.

“He was the most amazing person to work with,” Marjorie Shore, the administrator of Emanuel’s religious school, said. “He is kind, intellectual, and inspiring. You could go to him with a mundane problem or the most complicated, and he would try to help you. He was the heart and soul of Temple Emanuel.

“When I first came to work here, more than 30 years ago, I remember that the first time I met him I was so intimidated. We were sitting in a classroom, on kids’ chairs, and he was larger than life, and I was so tongue tied. But he couldn’t have been nicer. He and his wife are special people.”

Cantor Mark Biddleman worked with Rabbi Ungar for 40 years. “Emanuel is a unique place,” he said. “Rabbi Ungar had an unusual take on what suburban Judaism should be, and he was able to follow it.

“People were entranced with his talking. He is incredibly gifted, with a tremendous presence. He never spoke from a prepared text – the most he ever used was just a couple of notes scribbled on the back of an envelope. And in the entire time I worked with him, I heard him repeat maybe three or four sermons. Once we had two weddings and a funeral in one day – a wedding, a funeral, and a wedding – and he didn’t repeat himself at all in the weddings.

“He’s not good at small talk, but you could talk to him about anything. He engages on whatever level you’re on. He never shows off.”

Andre Ungar’s son Ari said that not only does his father have a great intellect, and not only has he enjoyed much professional success, but “he is a fundamentally good person.” He and his father discuss philosophy and religion, ranging far beyond Judaism. “He is very open to discussing new ideas. He is not dogmatic.

“And he knows a lot, but he is never a show-off. It often becomes clear how much he knows in certain areas, but he always wants to learn from other people as much as to have other people learning from him.”

His father’s English manners and sense of decorum extended to synagogue services as well. He wanted people to be both prompt and quiet. “He said that he always knew when non-Jews were in the synagogue because they came on time and they kept their mouths shut,” Mr. Ungar said. “He meant that as a compliment.

“He would sometimes stop the service when people were too noisy. Once, after he did that, my mom said, ‘Andre, I understand that they were talking – but they were the bar mitzvah family.’ But my father believed that the rules applied equally to everyone.”

Mr. Ungar, like Cantor Biddleman, knew that Rabbi Ungar almost never repeated a sermon. He remembers one exception to that rule, a speech that his father repeated on purpose. “He has a great sense of humor, and appreciated the synagogue member who upon hearing the deliberately repeated sermon – 25 years after it first was given – said, in effect, ‘Rabbi you are a great speaker, but I didn’t like that speech 25 years ago – and I don’t like it now.'”

He was not only a loving father but a dutiful one as well, carrying out obligations in places he knew little about. “He doesn’t have a sports background,” Mr. Ungar understated. As a student in the Frisch School in Paramus, Mr. Ungar was on the 1991 basketball team that made it to the Yeshiva League championship game in Madison Square Garden, facing the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “My father brought a book to the game,” Mr. Ungar said. “Afterward, he asked me how the game went. I said that we won. By one point.

“And he understood that that was good.

“My father tries to do what he thinks is right, and people respect him for it,” Mr. Ungar said. “He doesn’t do things not to be popular, but he doesn’t have the need that most people have to conform to what other people do.

“He is a terrific dad, and I am very lucky that he’s my father.”

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