George Hirschfeld Joins Temple Beth El
By JENNIFER HILL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Rabbi George Hirschfeld’s path to Otsego County was hardly a direct one.
The new spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, which serves both Oneonta and Cooperstown, was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1949, the same year the Soviet Union installed a Communist regime there.
Hirschfeld’s parents, who survived the Holocaust but lost nearly all of their family members in it, tried to leave for Israel, but they were caught at the border. Hirschfeld’s father was put in jail for five months and his mother for two. Hirschfeld, an infant, was in the cell with her.
“I was a jailbird,” he joked.
The Hirschfeld family attempted to leave Hungary again in November 1956 after the Soviet Union sent in troops and tanks in response to a student-led uprising against the government. This time, they succeeded.
“My father came home one afternoon and told my mother that if you want to leave, a car is coming to pick us up within an hour,” the rabbi recounted in an interview. “We left with only two satchels; whatever we could take with us. The car took us to one of the towns close to Austrian border, and we walked across at night.”
Inside Austria, U.S. officials were there to Hungarians fleeing the violent Soviet crackdown – 200,000 in all – to find shelter and work. The Hirschfelds lived in Salzburg for a few months, then traveled to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, which the Eisenhower administration set up as a refuge and immigration center for Hungarians. It was called “Operation Mercy.” Eventually, the family moved to New York.
Growing up in the city, Hirschfeld attended Jewish schools and became interested in Jewish history and in being a cantor, the person who sings and leads people in prayer during services.
“There were really good cantors in New York,” said Hirschfeld. “I fell in love with the music and took lessons, then started freelancing as a cantor at different synagogues.”
He went to divinity school, and became an ordained rabbi while continuing to take voice lessons and serving as cantor in synagogues.
His first career, however, was in international trade of metals and minerals, first in New York City, then in London for 10 years. But that industry began struggling and the London company he worked for closed down, forcing Hirschfeld to find a new career.
He found one – in Budapest, his birthplace.
“I went to an executive search firm to find a new job,” he said. “They wanted to open an office in Hungary after Communism fell in 1989, and with my business experience and knowing Hungarian, they hired me.”
Hirschfeld lived in Budapest, “a beautiful, cultured city,” for four years, involving himself in “the revival of Jewish life and institutions throughout Hungary.”
After moving back to New York, Hirschfeld embarked on his second career of serving as rabbi and cantor at synagogues in Southbury, Conn., Bay Ridge Jewish Center in Brooklyn, and the Howard Beach Judea Center in Queens.
But after being in Brooklyn for 20 years, Hirschfeld wanted to live in a quieter and much less crowded place. He was already exploring the Catskills when he learned of the position at Beth El.
“The synagogue is lovely, the people are very nice, the town is very pleasant, and the area around it is magnificent,” Hirschfeld said. “It’s a match made in heaven!”
On Sept. 20, Beth El will have a 7:30 p.m. service, “Special Welcome Oneg for Rabbi Hirschfeld,” People of all faiths are invited. Rabbi Hirschfeld will speak about the Mystical interpretation of the Sabbath.