The Power of a Name

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles offers an internal leadership opportunity for young Federation professionals. FILL — Federation Innovation Leadership Lab — is a yearlong program that builds professional development and strengthens leadership skills and culminates in an impactful international travel experience that exposes the FILL Fellows to the Federation’s global work and other like-minded young leaders. The program provides new skills and experiences, adding more excitement and passion to our Los Angeles Jewish community.

Aubrey Farkas, FILL Fellow and Federation’s Director of Civic Engagement, shares with us the impact of the FILL Fellowship program and her experience abroad in Budapest and Israel.

My last name is Farkas. You might have heard this name before — it means “wolf” and is common among people with Hungarian roots. In fact, it is the most common last name in Hungary — kind of like the name Smith in English-speaking countries and doesn’t connote any religious affiliation.

Jacob Farkas, my paternal great-grandfather, came to the United States over a decade before the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Despite having the second largest Jewish population in Europe, anti-Semitism was rampant in Hungary, and young Jacob, like so many others during that time, left his family to start a new life in the U.S.

I didn’t grow up with any particular allegiance to my Hungarian roots — I’m sorry to say, but my dad’s family history seemed uninteresting to me compared to my mom’s well-documented genealogy that dates back 200 years before the Revolutionary War in the United States.

Naturally, when Federation President & CEO Jay Sanderson announced that FILL would be headed to Hungary and Israel for a trip to learn more about our organization’s work in these countries, I instantly started dreaming of shawarma and hummus. After all, I’d never tasted Hungarian specialties like chicken paprikash or drank Unicum before. It wasn’t until we joined the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for home visits in Budapest that I really started to contemplate my relationship with this far away country.

In Hungary, a small group of us met with Eva Farkas, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor living in a small apartment in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Eva currently receives public utility and winter relief and medical supplies from the JDC. Like all Jews in Hungary, Eva was forced into a ghetto in 1944. Shortly after, she seized a lucky opportunity and casually walked out of the gates onto the frozen streets of Budapest without papers, family, or a plan.

Quickly realizing this was a problem, she walked into a government building to request new identification paperwork. She used her real name — Eva Farkas — and told the authorities she was a Hungarian citizen who had escaped the war in Ukraine. They printed her new papers and she moved in with a Christian family.

Something powerful struck me as she shared her story: even in her advanced age, Eva is incredibly sharp and has lived a life guided by strength and conviction. These qualities helped her survive the war, and her last name — a name that she and I share — likely saved her life.

100 years after my great-grandfather left and 70 after World War II, Hungary again finds itself with a nationalist government that has historically been anti-Semitic, and deeply suspicious of foreigners. Because of the political climate, many Jews in Hungary are raised without even knowing of their own heritage until young adulthood.

One night in Budapest we had dinner with young men from Moishe House. Since they were raised without knowing their religious background, I was curious if they planned on raising their future children Jewish. One of them replied with a question of his own: “What does it mean to raise your children Jewish?” I thought my question was simple, but his follow-up question was incredibly complicated. Having grown up in Los Angeles, my only frame of reference was a Jewish community that is vibrant and responsive — the young man’s response made it clear to me that this is not something that should be taken for granted.

The next morning, we left Budapest for Tel Aviv. I couldn’t help but feel a new and deep sense of appreciation when the plane touched down in Israel. We had spent the previous three days in my ancestral homeland, where being Jewish is largely kept secret, and landed in a country where Judaism is commonplace.

Since I got married last year, I am often asked if I will be taking my husband’s last name. The name Farkas was an easy target for playground bullies — my husband’s name is harder to make fun of and, of course, carries its own history. I no longer have an easy answer to that question, but I will forever tell the story of Eva Farkas, especially since we will always share the same name.

I am thankful for the opportunity to experience Hungary’s culture, visit its landmarks, and learn about The Jewish Federation’s global impact. Most importantly, I returned to Los Angeles as a professional committed to engaging the community and ensuring the Jewish future.