CLUJ, Romania, Jan. 2 (JTA) When a national Romanian Jewish youth organization was launched in late 1999, many were skeptical.
“It was not at all clear whether the new programs would work, and whether the old leadership would accept a new infusion of active young people,” said one source who has observed Romanian Jewry for years.
But the skeptics appear to have been wrong.
The establishment of OTER, as the group is called, has helped spark what some call a youth revolution in Romanian Jewry.
Young Romanian Jews increasingly are demanding that their own needs be served in the construction of a Romanian Jewish future.
“It’s really something new,” said Sorana Radu, coordinator of the OTER branch in Cluj.
Radu, a lively 22-year-old with a pixie haircut, made aliyah to Israel several years ago but recently returned to Romania.
“It’s important to stay here and build something,” she said. “Here you feel you are Jewish. In Israel, I was considered Romanian.”
The new education and outreach projects represent a dramatic reversal of the way the international Jewish community views Romanian Jewry.
OTER was created as part of an ambitious program of youth and leadership development implemented as a last-ditch gamble to prevent the extinction of Romanian Jewry.
Backed by donors in the United States, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the project during the past 15 months and plans further investment in cooperation with the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities.
“If we are successful in all these programs youth clubs, revitalization of Talmud Torahs, middle- generation programs and more there will be a viable Jewish community five and 10 years from now,” Zvi Feine, the JDC’s country director for Romania, told the group’s annual board meeting in New York in December.
“We began helping Romania” in this way “almost at the last minute, but we’ve been doing the right things,” he said.
For decades, local and international Jewish groups encouraged young people to make aliyah and, with the support of the JDC, worked to make sure that the elderly who stayed behind lived out their lives in dignity.
Even after the fall of communism, when Jewish communities in other Eastern and Central European countries began furthering Jewish education and championing communal development, little was done to break this mold. Almost every young Romanian Jew assumed that he or she would make aliyah after college.
Today, about 12,000 Jews are known to live in Romania. Only about 800 of these are between the ages of 15 and 35.
When the new youth programs were initiated in late 1999, JDC and federation leaders knew it would be their last chance to reach out.
The experiment has more than fulfilled expectations, according to Romanian and JDC sources.
OTER clubs have been established in at least seven Romanian cities, and in October 81 young people from 25 Jewish communities took part in the first seminar to train youth club leaders and activists to plan and execute programs.
This fall, OTER members published their own prayer book in Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew and Romanian that includes annotations and teaching instructions for prayers and holiday observances. They also published a youth newspaper.
In addition, more than 400 Jews mostly young people in 37 cities and towns were signed up for long-distance “Jewish Education through the Mail” courses. These courses were devised by Yosef Hirsch, a young American who was a JDC volunteer in Romania in 2000.
“When I first proposed JEM to the leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, they were skeptical about the idea,” Hirsch said in a report. “I was told that JEM was unrealistic, and that people would not be interested. However, after seeing the results, the community leaders changed their minds.”
Besides these programs, Romanian Jews with Internet access could utilize a new, Romanian language Jewish education Web site www.jen.ro that offered a wide range of texts, links and educational material.
This year, for the first time, a busload of more than a dozen young people from OTER chapters in several cities took part in the “Hanukkiadah,” the annual Chanukah tour by local Jewish leaders to Jewish communities around the country.
Chanukah ceremonies including candle lightings, speeches and choir recitals were held in the synagogues of a dozen scattered cities. During speeches from the bimah, Romania’s chief rabbi, Menachem Hakohen, said religious leaders had to reach out to young people and learn to speak their language.
“If we don’t understand the Internet, the young people will not understand us,” he said.
Dorel Dorian, Romanian Jewry’s representative in Parliament, underscored the significance of the young generation.
“We have about 800 Jewish cemeteries in Romania,” he said. “And about 800 young Jews.”
Nonetheless, young Jews say they frequently encounter resistance from existing, often elderly, communal lay leaders who are not used to contending with an active and youthful Jewish presence.
Harry Curariu, a 22-year-old business administration student and OTER activist from the northern city of Iasi, put it more bluntly.
“They don’t understand us,” he said. “They are even afraid of us; their mentality is resistant to change. They don’t understand that young people think in a different way and have another style of life. They said that we young people want to destroy the symbols of the community, but we told them that the youth are the flame of the future and that they have to understand and support us.”
It remains to be seen if the current momentum can be maintained against the backdrop of an economic and social crisis that has made Romania one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Throughout the country, unemployment is high and inflation mounting. Salaries can be well below $100 a month, and as much as 40 percent of the population exists on $1.50 a day.
Economic hardship and disgust with the corruption of mainstream politicians were among the reasons that nearly a third of the population voted for ultranationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor in recent presidential elections.
That economic hardship, as well as a sense of political and social futility, have spurred hundreds of thousands of Romanians to leave the country in the past decade.
Many Romanians cannot leave because they cannot obtain visas. In this situation, Jews are considered fortunate because they can go to Israel and that option remains a viable one for many young Jews, despite the success of OTER.
“I haven’t decided what I am going to do yet,” said David, a 20-year-old OTER member who is a sophomore at the University of Iasi.
“I would like to stay in Romania, but frankly, what would my future be here? I am studying business and finance. I speak English. I want to fulfill my potential. Can I do it here?”