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Celebration in Chisinau, tragedy in Brussels

Students of the ORT Herzl Jewish school in Chisinau with participants of Limmud Moldova on May 24, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Students of the ORT Herzl Jewish school in Chisinau with participants of Limmud Moldova on May 24, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

The news that four people had died in an apparent terrorist attack at Brussels’ Jewish museum hit me at the least expected time and place.

I was on the other end of the continent, in Chisinau, Moldova, getting ready to party with hundreds of Jews who were celebrating their country’s second Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference. Among Jews around the world, Chisinau is better known by its former name — Kishinev. In 1903, it was the site of one of Russia’s largest pogroms, a pivotal event in spurring mass immigration to Israel and the United States and making Kishinev a symbol of murderous anti-Semitism.

Limmud has quickly become this small and impoverished community’s flagship event and testament to its attempt to be culturally revived despite being in one of Europe’s most challenging settings.

For me, the news from Brussels drained me of any desire to partake in the Moldovans’ big day.

Brussels, you see, hit too close to home.

The city’s landscape, with its impressive Gothic architecture, was my first sight of Europe as a child, and my tight-knit clan of 20-odd fun-loving relatives keeps me returning regularly for Jewish holidays full of laughs, alcohol and raucous singing.

And while I generally prefer Dutch society’s simpler charms to Belgium’s many cultural pretensions and social intricacies, it is the Brussels Jewish museum that I visit each year on European Day of Jewish Culture for lectures and events full of humor and rich historical detail.

After a quick Facebook scan to see my family was okay, I immersed myself in the horror that transpired at the entrance to that museum. Each of the four victims received two to five bullets to the neck and head from a shooter who moved quickly and silently, with efficiency that suggested determination and training, I learned from an anguishing talk with a counterterrorism expert.

Speaking in a hushed but determined voice that I recognized from people in my native Israel, a Brussels Jewish mother whom I’d interviewed about her children’s Jewish school invited me to a movie screening about the Holocaust, which she said would turn into a town hall meeting for the community and a vigil for the dead — a testament to this community’s resilience and familiarity with terrorist attacks.

And in a telephone conversation with the indefatigable Joel Rubinfeld — one of Belgian Jewry’s most prominent representatives – I heard anger at what he believes is a failure by Belgium’s deeply divided society and government to mount serious opposition to the growing problem of anti-Semitism which he says is slowly emptying the country of its Jews.

The account of the killing made me think of a building I had seen in Chisinau just hours before the attack in Brussels while on a tour with several other Limmud FSU participants. The tour included a home where a mob murdered five Jews during the pogroms of 1903 — three days, sparked by a blood libel, in which 49 Jews were murdered and hundreds wounded.

Standing in front of the house, we heard loud music from the Herzl ORT school, which is located directly opposite the pogrom site on Romana Street 13. Graduates were practicing their graduation dance to “We Are the Champions” by Queen.

Three hours later, I was already back at the hotel, trying to make sense of the horror in Belgium and a portrait of a community in decline. But there, too, I was surrounded by songs of Jewish renewal.

Unaware of the unfolding drama in Brussels, young Moldovans and Israelis at Limmud FSU were singing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu”: “Someday Peace will Come upon Us.”

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