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Special Report Rumania’s Dwindling Jewish Community Unique in World

The facts and figures pertaining to the Jewish community of Rumania are unique in every respect: unique in the Jewish world, unique in the Communist world, and unique in Rumania itself.

Before World War II there were 800,000 Jews in Rumania. Half of them perished in the Holocaust. Of those who survived almost all have emigrated to Israel — with the blessing of the Rumanian government.

Today some 26,000 Jews still live in Rumania. Half live in Bucharest, the capital. The rest are spread among more than 50 provincial towns. Virtually all of them are members of the organized Jewish community and actively participate in Jewish communal, religious and cultural life — again with the blessing of President Nicolae Ceausescus hardline communist regime.

More than half of the Jews are more than 60 years of age. Many thousands of them directly benefit in vital, material ways from a gamut of welfare programs, from kosher kitchens to medical care, funded in large part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — once again with the full consent of the Rumanian authorities.

‘PROGRAM OF SURVIVAL’

“It is quite literally a program of survival,” a Rumanian Jewish official told this reporter during a recent visit to Bucharest, referring to the welfare programs. “Without this aid, many of the elderly recipients would be condemned to starve.”

Given the bitterly harsh climatic conditions prevailing across Rumania this winter, and the palpably evident economic difficulties which confront most of its citizens, these dramatic words seemed no exaggeration whatever.

The annual cost of the totality of the welfare programs is in the order of $5 million. Of this the JDC contributes $4 million, and the Jewish Community Federation of Rumania the remaining million. (The community is sometimes the beneficiary of bequests, and therefore holds funds of its own.)

The programs include aid in cash. This alone accounts for some 30 percent of the outlay. Some 5,000 persons are eligible: Holocaust refugees; elderly couples or individuals whose families have moved abroad, usually to Israel; persons who, for whatever reason, do not qualify for the full state pension receivable on the basis of a minimum of 25 working years.

“We are guided by two principles,” says Sami Edelstein, head of the Jewish Federations assistance department. “Strict adherence to criteria (for eligibility), and strict maintenance of human dignity.”

AID PACKAGES

Thus the monthly aid grants are sent, by mail, to recipients’ homes, just like the state pensions, thereby obviating the sometimes embarrassing need to come to the federation offices to collect them.

Aid packages are sent out eight times a year, six times to coincide with the major Jewish festivals, and once in midsummer and once in mid-winter, to bridge the long dry seasons between festivals.

The criteria of need are determined by a committee comprising Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen, Federation president Theodore Blumenfeld, and assistance department head Edelstein. The final arbiter is the rabbi, who, since his election to office in the storms and dangerous days of the late forties, has led this community with a firm hand — and with an even firmer and more unwavering vision of its ultimate redemption: transplanted almost in its entirety in Israel.

The packages contain foodstuffs, purchased from government stores. They each weigh some 40 pounds and are worth some $20. Married couples receive double packages.

Once a year, persons meeting the criteria are invited to their local federation offices to select clothing and shoes. Here, too, the precious principle of dignity is rigorously maintained: all the clothing is brand new most of it manufactured in Rumania, though some is sent over from the United States by the JDC, and people are invited in small groups, to eliminate crowding or embarrassment.

Meals on wheels, bringing hot midday meals to elderly housebound Jews, is literally a lifesaver in many cases. The meals are prepared in the Kosher restaurants which are maintained in all the major Rumanian communities, and despatched to recipients homes by minibuses owned by the community.

There are ten restaurants around the country, offering substantial and tasty kosher meals every day to anyone who comes by. And thousands of Jews do. By no means all of them are old or weak: younger people too find the convenience and ambiance of the Jewish restaurant attractive and pleasant.

Those who can pay the full 22 lei (about $1.80) for their meal. Most people, however, pay for less, and some pay nothing.

The criteria for payment are determined by a discreet means test. Yet — such is the fastidious concern for human dignity — people sitting around the same table and enjoying the same meal cannot know what each of them paid for that meal. The system of ticketing is specifically designed to conceal this information.

HELP FOR THE HOME-BOUND

The assistance department hires home-helpers to clean, cook and shop for elderly home-bound or bed-ridden Jews. Four hundred homes in the capital and another 300 in the provinces benefit from this service.

The Federation employs, in addition, six social workers who visit recipients and potential recipients of the various aid programs. These social workers are all retired people themselves (in Rumania retirement age is 60 for men and 57 for women), boosting their pensions by doing this work — but doing it, as is immediately and abundantly apparent, much more out of love and devotion than for the material benefit.

Edelstein explains that the federation cannot attract young, professional social workers “because we can’t afford to pay as much as the government.” He himself is a former senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Trade who, when he retired, was eagerly enlisted by Rabbi Rosen to head up the assistance department.

A medical center or polyclinic in Bucharest has doctors who are also almost all retirees. Among their number are some of the country’s better-known specialists, including internationally-renowned virologist Prof. Nikolai Cajal, a member of the Rumanian Academy of Sciences.

While ostensibly health care is provided free by the state to all its citizens, the elderly and/or needy Jews are eligible to attend the clinic, or call its physicians to their homes, enjoy a considerably more efficient, and immeasurably more devoted, service. The clinic, moreover, is linked to two pharmacies which dispense its doctors’ prescriptions. The drugs, like the medical diagnoses and treatments, are all free for all eligible patients — and are not available, even for money, for people not adjudged eligible.

With 2,000 mostly young professional Rumanian Jews having left for Israel in 1984 alone, and with only 50 Jewish births having been registered throughout the country, Cajal predicts the virtual end of this entire, impressive, moving structure of organized Jewish life within a decade. A combination of aliya and biology will see to that, he says.

Israeli experts tend to agree. They feel there is potential for a further 10,000 Rumanian Jewish immigrants to Israel at most, with the remainder of the community intent on living out their lives in Rumania.

Rabbi Rosen does not agree with the essence of this prognosis. But he predicts a slower shrinkage. In ten years time, he believes, there will still be a Jewish population of 15,000.

“Whether or not there will still be organized, flourishing communal and religious Jewish life — that depends on us,” Rosen says. “Even the present situation is unnatural, almost miraculous. A community of 26,000 maintaining active Jewish centers in 68 separate places — complete with synagogues and social services.”

Rosen believes passionately that the key to Rumanian Jewry’s monumental success — and the statistics, after all, add up to an incredible success-story, especially in view of the objective circumstances — has been his unrelenting fight to preserve the spiritual heritage. His greatest pride and joy are the afterschool classes, usually held in synagogues, where the ever-dwindling young generation imbibes the fundamentals of their people culture and traditions.

“They may not become great scholars (talmidei Hahamim),” Rosen said in a speech at the Choral Synagogue last month in the presence of Israeli Premier Shimon Peres. “But they grow up with a profound knowledge of what it means to be Jewish–and a profound commitment and identity.”

JEWISH MUSIC ENCOURAGED

Rosen’s particular innovation, in terms of Jewish education in trying circumstances, has been his encouragement of music and song. All the larger communities boast Jewish youth choirs. In Bucharest there are several.

Enormous effort and devotion go into rehearsing, songwriting, organizing, and periodically performing — especially on the festivals and whenever a distinguished visitor comes by, from Israel or the West. And the enthusiasm of the young choristers and musicians is infectious, regularly rousing audiences of Jews, young and old (mostly old), to join in with the songs of Zion, the Yiddish lieder and the liturgical tunes that fill the grand old synagogues with the sounds of yesterday — and of tomorrows.

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