Meet Csendi, Jewish Scholar of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / May 31, 2023

Meet Csendi! Coming to the DMV via Hungary to work on her PhD, Csendi’s wasted no time in immersing herself in DMV life. There’s no telling where you might run into Csendi. A GatherDC Happy Hour? Adas Israel? Round House Theatre? DC Minyan? Tatte? The National Portrait Gallery? It might be all of those in the same week. One sunny May morning in Bethesda, I sit down with Csendi — read on to hear all about her research, her experience as a newcomer and “youngster” in Jewish DMV life, her vision for Jewish community “back home,” and her dream Shabbat guest list!

Csendi poses amongst cherry blossoms.

Samuel: What brought you to the DMV?

Csendi: I’m a PhD student back in Hungary, studying International Relations in Budapest. I got an internship opportunity from the Hungarian American Coalition to work here in DC at the Victims of Communism Museum, concentrating on central European issues. So I moved to DC in mid-February!

Samuel: Why have you stayed? What made you feel at home? 

Csendi: The vibe in DC is very friendly and generous. I’ve gotten to meet so many nice people, especially – though not only – from the Jewish community. I enjoy the environment of being surrounded by economists, political scientists, students – all kinds of people who share my interests. 

Csendi at sunset with a background of three American flags. Samuel: What are you exploring in your PhD studies?

Csendi: I’m concentrating on political communication and so-called performativity, which refers to how people gain the attention of their audience in the public sphere. I’m focusing on Central Europe, but have done some research on the US political scene as well.

Samuel: What have you found? 

Csendi: There are so many little elements that people don’t notice: nonverbal gestures, how people are dressed. It’s not just about how we speak, but also how we perform our speech in front of a certain audience. When you are in the public sphere, people obviously have some sort of intent on how the audience will feel about their speech and actions. 

Samuel: Has that research and work changed you outside of your studies?

Csendi: Honestly, yes. A lot. I was studying Political Science before my PhD, but I also studied Theatre and Theatre Theory, which is connected to creating a certain environment around you that puts people in a position where they’ll believe what you’re saying. 

I believe that my research has had a great impact on me, personally, in terms of how I present myself. I’m monitoring myself, in a sense, depending on what kind of situation or community I am in. It shapes my personality in a more conscious way, and I notice the differences in how other people present themselves. 

Csendi takes a selfie on a sunny day. Samuel: Do you ever feel like you’re “performing” a version of yourself?

Csendi: The most difficult situation is where I have to act as a “diplomat.” It happens a lot, coming from Europe to the United States and being involved in a diaspora community here. It’s very difficult; people from all kinds of communities are interested in the experiences I have from home, yet it is hard to be comprehensive, objective and not think about any sort of political ideology. I feel like I have to be intentional in understanding and respecting how other people think and feel. 

Samuel: How have you felt as you join the DMV Jewish community?

Csendi: Assimilating into the DC lifestyle and Jewish community, it’s very different from what I experienced back home. So different. Honestly, the best thing that I’ve encountered in DC is GatherDC. The whole journey I’ve had in DC started with looking for Jewish communities before I moved. It’s very important for me to have a nice Jewish community around me. I started to research what kind of communities are present in DC, and found GatherDC. I had a coffee with Ava in, like, my second week in DC.

Samuel: No pressure at all to be complimentary, but…how did that go for you? 

Csendi: I got most of my friends through GatherDC. I went to a Happy Hour, which was very fruitful both personally and professionally. Everything got interconnected, which was amazing. But Ava also introduced me to some specific people, who ended up being my friends. It was so amazing. 

I met Mary, too, in a different setting, at Adas Israel. It was funny – we actually met before she got her new job, so I knew the organization and Mary separately, from before.

Csendi poses with friends.

Anyway, the DC Jewish community is very welcoming – not just GatherDC, but also Adas Israel and DC Minyan and some other places. I love it. Back home, we do not have organizations like this that gather people together, acting as an umbrella organization to help newcomers settle in. I think that’s crucial; this is how we lose so many people from Jewish community, because we cannot find each other. I’m pretty sure that I would not have had so many chances to participate in so many events in DC and the Jewish community without the connections Ava and GatherDC allowed me to have. 

I’m not just saying that – as a newcomer, without anybody, it’s super crucial to have this kind of organization. I hope that eventually we will have the same kind of organization back home. That would be awesome. Out of all the organizations I’ve been involved with, GatherDC was one of the most important ones in terms of finding my friends.

Csendi on a sunny day with a wooded area and pond. Samuel: How else has the DMV been different from the community you have back home?

Csendi: One of the major differences is that the DC community has more people, especially youngsters. There are so many other differences – it would take us hours to talk about just this topic. But the biggest difference is that in Hungary I consider myself a Neolog Jew. It’s a branch of Judaism that originates from Hungary, long before the Holocaust. The community is kind of in between what we call Conservative and Modern Orthodox today. Services are pretty traditional, but outside the synagogue it’s more liberal. It’s hard for us to interpret our style of Judaism in the contemporary spectrum. 

For me, in DC, it’s been great to be able to participate in all different kinds of different communities. I can have the full experience of the DC Jewish life, which I really like.

Another difference – not just in the Jewish community – is that people in the US are very open and approachable. It was easier for me to find my place here compared to anywhere else I’ve been before.

Csendi and a friend hold kittens.

Samuel: What do you find personally meaningful within your Judaism? 

Csendi: I’ve enjoyed the chance to see so many communities and how they practice. Back home, the centers of Judaism are the synagogues, and so we don’t have such a wide spectrum of experiencing how we want to keep our Judaism. Here, even if you are less religious, you really have the chance to explore. I’ve become much more connected to my Jewish personality since I moved. I’ve got a new power to explore Judaism and what is happening here specifically in DC. I am very grateful for my friends, mostly from the Jewish community here, who helped me a lot in finding my place. It’s been a great revelation for me that, as I’ve found these communities for youngsters, my religious side has gotten much stronger.

Also, it’s easier Kosher-wise here. I’m lowkey about keeping Kosher, but I like it; it’s really good that everything is labeled in the US. 

Csendi on a Metro escalator. Samuel: If you could pick up one new skill or hobby in the next year, what would it be? 

Csendi: Americans tend to be more open advocating for yourselves in certain situations. I would love to learn because I find it really useful and it’s something that I could improve on.

Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now? 

Csendi: It was a big step for me, coming from Hungary to DC without knowing anyone or having a secure friend group. But even though I had these difficulties, I managed to find so many nice friends and so many nice people. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be here, because it’s not something that all people can do. I’ve found my community, my people. I’ve found DC very welcoming, without being too homesick. I haven’t decided if I want to be here permanently, but I’m not saying I don’t. I love the city and people.

Samuel: What’s the greatest piece of art — however you want to define art — that you’ve encountered recently? 

Csendi: There is this French movie called The Fabulous Life of Amelie Poulain. The whole movie is about the idea that if you’re helping others, life will help you find your way through. I love it very much.  

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they? 

Csendi: Maimonides, Hannah Arendt, and Audrey Hepburn

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me: When Jews of the DMV gather…

Csendi: Great, memorable things happen. 

Csendi poses with a friend near the river.

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