Around the Jewish World: Jewish Institute in Romania Serves As Community’s Heartbeat

Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger recalls his first postwar visit to this Romanian city in 1988.

“I came back, and I was looking for my body — the Jewish community, the Jewish choir, the Jewish high schools, teachers, students,” he recalled, peering through thick glasses from under a thatch of snow-white hair.

Carmilly-Weinberger was the last rabbi of Cluj before the Holocaust. Today a spry 88-year-old, he was a professor at Yeshiva University for decades until 1975.

On that first trip back in 1988, when Romania was still ruled by Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Carmilly-Weinberger found a dwindling community of a few hundred, mostly elderly Jews. It was a pale shadow of a community that had numbered about 16,000 before the war.

The body he sought no longer existed.

But two years later, after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, Carmilly- Weinberger helped found an Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History at the Babes Bolyai University in Cluj, a city of 300,000 in central Romania that was once the capital of Transylvania.

“I wanted to have a living memorial for Transylvanian Jewry,” he said during a recent visit back to attend an international conference sponsored by the institute.

“I don’t believe that a plaque on the wall or a sculpture is the best way to immortalize the tragedy of the Jewish people. The Jewish way is to spread Judaism.

“I said it is possible to plant a flower amid the ruins,” he added. “It will grow and be a memorial, and it will bring the non-Jewish world closer to the Jewish world. The tragedy is that we don’t know each other.”

The institute, part of the university’s history and philosophy department, is the only such university Jewish studies program in Romania. It offers courses in Hebrew and various aspects of Jewish and Israeli history.

Most, if not all, of the 480 registrants are not Jewish, and only about a quarter of them finish the courses.

“But even if we speak of 120 students, that’s very impressive,” said David Barat, an Israeli who has been teaching Hebrew and other subjects at the institute for two years.

“Most students don’t want academic credit,” he said. “Most just come because it is attractive to them. The main attraction is real, pure intellectual curiosity, and a mystery accompanying the Hebrew language.”

There is still a small Jewish community in Cluj, which, supported by the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, maintains a kosher lunchroom, a clinic and other religious and social welfare services.

But in many ways, the university institute has taken over the public, albeit secular, Jewish role in the city.

While several large synagogue buildings in Cluj still stand, the only functioning synagogue today is a small prayer room in a nondescript apartment building. On one recent Friday night, the congregation consisted of exactly 10 men.

In addition to courses, the Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History sponsors research work, exhibits, publications and other projects aimed at promoting public knowledge about Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture.

In many ways, these activities fulfill what Nicolae Cajal, the president of the Romanian Federation of Jewish Communities, has called the promotion of “real- Semitism,” that is, countering potential anti-Semitism through the dissemination of information and other educational initiatives.

“It’s a very good opportunity for people to get to know Judaism,” Michael Lotem, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Bucharest, said of the Institute and its activities. “It’s direct contact — you go, see, get information. That can help.”

Lotem was in Cluj this fall at a ceremony held at the university to award the Righteous Among Nations recognition to an elderly Cluj woman, Anna Pal, who had saved a Jewish child during World War II.

The ceremony took place during the sixth annual international conference sponsored by the institute. Both events were covered in the local media.

At the conference, “The Haskalah and its Impact on Jewish Life in Romania,” Jewish and non-Jewish scholars — mostly from Romania, but also from Hungary, Israel and the United States — presented papers.

“After six years here I can look back with great satisfaction,” said Carmilly- Weinberger, who has attended each of the conferences.

“I see that this will spread knowledge of Judaism and will be an eternal lamp in memorial to the community that was lost,” he said.

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