Budapest Jews split on whistleblowing leader with colorful past


BUDAPEST (JTA) – An anti-corruption whistleblower elected to head the Budapest Jewish community has sparked a crisis among the highest officials of Hungarian Jewry at a time of heightened tensions with the government.

The conflict, one of the fractious community’s most vociferous and colorful fights in years, erupted shortly after the election last month of David Schwezoff as CEO of the Budapest community.

Within days, Schwezoff announced that he had filed a police complaint alleging that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been embezzled from the Hungarian capital’s historic Dohany Street Synagogue, a claim denied by other Jewish leaders. He then proceeded to make an administrative change that is said to threaten Hungary’s most popular public Jewish event, the Budapest Jewish Summer Festival.

Andras Heisler, head of the Mazsihisz federation of Hungarian Jewish communities, of which the Budapest community is the largest member, has called on Schwezoff to resign.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian media has uncovered some colorful secrets from Schwezoff’s past, including that he dressed as a woman and performed in a nightclub under the stage name Carol Hore Mohn.

“This is not a game anymore, as David Schwezoff is running amok and compromising the Jewish community’s honor and putting it at stake,” Heisler told the Nepszava newsweekly.

The dispute comes at a delicate moment for Hungarian Jewry. The community has been locked in a standoff with the government for months over the erection of a monument that the Jewish community says minimizes Hungarian complicity in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Also, the community is in talks with the government over an $11 million subsidy to renovate the Rumbach Sebestyen Street Synagogue, which is owned by the Budapest community, though Mazsihisz is doing the negotiating. Schwezoff has demanded that his community be represented in the talks.

“Without the owner, there is no point in having any kind of negotiation about the Rumbach synagogue,” Schwezoff told the Heti Valasz weekly.

Schwezoff, a 35-year-old economist and and opera enthusiast who also serves as cantor of his local synagogue, converted to Judaism after attending a Jewish high school. A skilled orator, his rise to power was helped by his close ties to leaders of the two main communities in Hungary: the Orthodox and the Neolog, a precursor of American Conservative Judaism.

He also enjoyed the support of Gusztav Zoltai, the former director of Mazsihisz. Until his retirement and fall from grace earlier this year, Zoltai was widely regarded as the most powerful figure in the Jewish community.

The support helped Schwezoff earn a temporary appointment as chief of the Budapest community in July. In October, Schwezoff was elected to a four-year term.

The new CEO’s complaint on the Dohany Street Synagogue, which has not been made public, reportedly alleges that unnamed parties skimmed about half of the $2 million collected as entry fees over the past two years to the landmark shul, Europe’s largest shul and a major Budapest tourist attraction.

After making the charge, Schwezoff canceled all community contracts with Vera Vadas, the owner of the firm that collects the fees at Dohany. Vadas also organized the annual summer festival, the Budapest community’s most popular program for the general public.

In a radio interview, Heisler warned that the abrupt termination of Vadas posed “a huge threat” to the festival because of her decade’s worth of experience as its organizer.

Schwezoff declined JTA’s requests for an interview. But the community’s spokesman, Balazs Csaszar, said his moves were part of a plan to implement “zero tolerance to unclear and invisible actions.”

Schwezoff’s past became an issue following reports in the local Jewish media in July. Szombat, the Jewish weekly, published an Op-Ed asserting that the cross-dressing rendered Schwezoff unsuitable to head the community. Still, he enjoyed wide support in Budapest.

“He is an active guy with good oratory skills, a natural-born performer with an impressive CV,” Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti of Budapest said of Schwezoff. Tordai, on the other hand, “is a man in his 60s who does not exactly excel in making speeches. So the voters went for the dynamic character, the one who made all the promises,” Zoltai said.

In an interview with Heti Valasz, Schwezoff spoke publicly for the first time about his cross-dressing, which he said was a result of depression brought on by a failed love affair with an American woman he met in Israel.

“My highly disciplined life fell into pieces, I ran loose,” he said. “Today even I myself do not understand how all these things could’ve happened.

“But even during those years of errors I longed for spirituality. I made some attempts to break out ... but I always felt ashamed whenever I entered into a Jewish community. I did not dare to look my own people in the eye.”

Csaszar said that Schwezoff has since “made a 180-degree turn” and “has been living according to the Torah, keeping Shabbat and kosher.”

Some Hungarian Jewish leaders say they will judge Schwezoff according to his performance now rather than his past.

“He is a young guy, very driven, speaks three languages and seems capable,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of Mazsihisz. “He may be someone who is able to take the community forward. I’m waiting to see if it happens.”

Yet other Jewish leaders believe that regardless of his current practices, he is unsuited to head their community.

“Regardless of what one thinks of Schwezoff’s past, he needs to operate within the context of a relatively conservative Jewish community and a right-wing government,” Radnoti told JTA. “You won’t be taken seriously with online photos of you wearing pink lingerie.”