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Ten Years After the Wall: As Romanian Jews Near Extinction, Their Leaders Come Up with a Revival

Romania’s Jewish leaders have approved an ambitious program of youth and leadership development as a belated, last-ditch effort to prevent the extinction of Romanian Jewry.

“We now are at the last moment in which we can do something,” warned Tibor Kovari, coordinator of Talmud Torah education around the country. “If the Romanian Jewish community doesn’t do something now, then there is no future.”

The plan, approved during a late October meeting in Bucharest, would totally revamp the community’s outmoded study program for young children.

It would also create new programs for Jewish teen-agers, college students and the so-called “middle generation” — which in Romania encompasses people aged 25 to 65.

The new programs look good on paper, but it remains to be seen just how much can be accomplished against a backdrop of economic and social crisis and a Jewish community that, since the end of World War II, has seen little hope for continuity.

Indeed, the decision to bolster education and culture programs, initiate youth organizations and reach out to unaffiliated or disaffected Jews represents a net reversal in the official Jewish communal mind-set.

For decades, the pattern of Jewish life in Romania has been to encourage aliyah among young people and, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to make sure that the elderly who can’t or won’t move to Israel live out their lives in dignity.

Today, about 12,000 Jews are known to live in Romania. About half of them live in Bucharest and the rest in more than 40 communities scattered around the country, some with only a handful of members.

Almost every young Romanian Jew assumed that he or she would make aliyah after college.

Even after the fall of communism, when Jewish communities in other post- Communist countries took advantage of new freedoms to begin furthering Jewish education and championing communal development, little was done to break this mold.

“I see no future in Romania, either as a Jew or as a Romanian,” says Gabriel, a university student in Bucharest. “The only thing that might stop me making aliyah to Israel as soon as I get my degree is that my parents are old and still live in a small town here, and I don’t want to leave them alone.”

Throughout Romania, unemployment is high and inflation mounting; the currency has dropped precipitously against Western currencies; the government is tainted by corruption, inefficiency and infighting. Salaries can be well below $100 a month.

A cold snap in October, for example, left hundreds of thousands of city dwellers without heat because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills.

“Psychological attitudes here are really a problem,” said a staff member of the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities who works with social welfare programs. “Two or three years ago, people talked about light at the end of the tunnel. But they didn’t even find a candle.”

The assumption that most Jews would emigrate meant that for years the community paid only lip service to developing local communal spirit among youth and targeting young individuals for future leadership training.

This attitude was challenged outside official communal structures in 1998, when the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation opened a modern school for young children in Bucharest. The Lauder school, considered the best in the city, has attracted much of its student body from the non-Jewish Romanian and resident foreign population.

Standards for existing Jewish community-run programs for children and students, meanwhile, plummeted.

A new computer center was opened a few years ago in the northern city of Iasi, but it was accessible only one hour a week. In Galati, the Jewish children’s choir director withheld snacks because too few children came to practice. In one city, children were seen to be threatened physically if they didn’t go to synagogue.

“In conditions like this, why should we wonder that the kids are not attracted?” asked Sandra Segal, director of youth and education development for the Romanian community.

The numbers tell the story.

Half of Romania’s Jews — about 400,000 people — survived the Holocaust. In the biggest Jewish exodus from Europe until the mass flight from the former Soviet Union in recent years, almost all of them made aliyah.

This was thanks to the extraordinary career of Rabbi Moses Rosen, a colorful and controversial figure who served as chief rabbi from 1948 until his death in 1994.

Rosen ran the community with an iron hand.

He carried on a difficult and potentially dangerous juggling act, trading off public servility to the Communist regime for religious and community rights for Romania’s Jews, including the right to emigrate. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was the only Communist leader not to break relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

The constant emigration of most young people once they hit their early 20s, and assimilation by most of those who opt to stay, has left a huge gap in generations.

Of the 12,000 Jews, most are old-age pensioners. Fewer than 700 are under the age of 35. Fewer still are middle-age adults.

“There is a 40- to 50-year age difference between the two active generations of the community, and we all need to admit that we need each other,” said Kovari, one of the few Jews who chose to remain in Romania after college and lead a committed Jewish life.

“The young people need the community activity, without which they will probably lose their Jewish identity and, in time, become completely assimilated,” he said. “But the federation needs the young people, too, as a guarantee that this community is not dying.”

Paradoxically, numbers of community members have remained fairly constant in recent years, despite the fact that the community annually loses as many as 1,000 or more members due to death and emigration.

“It’s like the miracle of Chanukah,” says Zvi Feine, the JDC country director for Romania.

The reason for this is that unaffiliated Jews constantly step forward to join the community, in a large part for the social welfare benefits — and also for the possibility of emigration.

Supported by the JDC, the Federation of Romanian Jews runs 11 kosher canteens around the country, provides hundreds of meals on wheels for the homebound, and runs clinics, pharmacies and other social welfare programs.

Many Jews would simply not be able to live without this support.

“Everyone wants to leave because of the economic situation,” said an employee of the federation. “But Jews have the option to do so.

“In addition,” he said, “elderly people are coming to us for aid, people who never had any contact with the community. I ask them why they are coming now. They say, `Because I’m starving’ — and it’s true.”

Non-Jews, too, sometimes try to join the community, for the welfare programs and the possibility to make aliyah.

The numbers of inquiries are such that Chief Rabbi Menachem Hakohen has taped a sign to the outside of his door:

“We don’t convert people to Judaism.”

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