Timisoara, Romania — As a child Luciana Friedman attended the community seders here each year with her parents and grandparents.
As a young adult, she comes with her husband. And she comes as a leader of an emerging part of the city’s small Jewish community.
Friedman, 30, a reporter for the monthly Realitatea Evreiasca (Jewish Reality) newspaper, is an active member of OTER, the Organization of the Young Jews of Romania, an independent group founded eight years ago that sponsors classes, holiday celebrations and cultural events. At the seders in the dining hall of the Jewish Community — Timisoara is in the western corner of Romania near the Hungarian border — she sat at a long, tablecloth-covered table with friends from OTER, singing Passover tunes they had learned in the city’s Jewish choir.
OTER has about 400 members throughout the country, from their late-teens to mid-30s. They represent a substantial part of Romania’s under-40 Jewish generation, and the organization is a sign that the post-communist renaissance of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, a distant goal when religious freedom first became possible, is becoming a reality.
Fifteen years after communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, which marked the formal end of the atheistic political system in the region, Jewish life in Eastern Europe, which Time magazine 12 years ago called a “dim shadow of a once-vibrant community,” is starting to resemble that in like-sized Western communities, with some of the schisms that characterize larger Jewish communities in the West. “People are breaking off and forming their own havurot [worship groups],” author Ruth Ellen Gruber says.
In one sign of progress, Aurel Vainer, a 75-year-old former member of Parliament, two years ago became the first elected president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania. He might run for another four-year-term in 2009, but a younger member of the community is sure to succeed him.
Romania’s young Jews founded OTER, says Andrei Schwartz, Timisoara coordinator, because “We wanted to have a voice.”
Throughout the region, Jewish life offers a growing number of social and religious and cultural programs. Many are homegrown and home-led, decreasingly dependent on the expertise of such overseas organizations as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “Now we are consultants,” especially in the area of financial management, says Alberto Senderey, director of the JDC in Europe.One example of the change: a Bucharest native who has studied in New York City the last two years will return to Romania this summer to replace the country’s chief rabbi, who commutes from Israel. (See story on page 35.)
Many communities, using funds from returned communal property, are financially secure. And many are attracting young Jews.
In Romania, there’s OTER. In Hungary, there’s judapest.org, a hip blog journal. In the Czech Republic, there are non-Orthodox houses of worship that appeal to a young crowd.
While some young Jews are taking leadership roles in the established Jewish organizations that are carryovers from the communist days, several are creating their own less authoritarian Jewish organizations and their own iconoclastic, more pluralistic type of Jewish identity. For them, talking about communism (they were children in its dying years or after it ended) or about Eastern Europe (they came of age in a time of Internet access to information, of a culturally unified European Union continent) is an anachronism.
“They don’t see borders,” says Edward Serotta, founder of Centropa, a Vienna-based research group that documents the heritage of central and eastern European Jewry.
Young Eastern European Jews, who may have met at the JDC/Lauder summer camp in Szarvas, Hungary, or during seminars in Israel, come to leadership positions more cosmopolitan than their non-Jewish peers, says Dana Vereanu, who is active in Bucharest’s Jewish community. “I went outside more often. I was exposed to the Western ways.”
Vereanu is 24. Jews her age know freedom their parents and grandparents only dreamed about.
“Most Jews of my generation want to figure out our Jewish identity by ourselves, not through these established, organized structures,” says Bruno Bitter, founder of judapest.org. “We had the liberty to ‘construct’ our Jewish identity, taking ‘identity-pieces’ from here and there. For some people it’s a ‘cultural thing,’ for others it might be an ‘ethos’ and for others it might just be a peculiarity worth exploring. There are also real baal teshuvim [returnees to religious observance].”
Judapest.org recently sponsored a kosher wine-tasting event, “which was a big success,” and there is a “great demand for activities beyond the blog,” Bitter says.The Jewish revival varies “from country to country,” depending on size and financial circumstances, says Gruber, who writes frequently about the region. “Compared to what was there, it’s a new world.”
Hungary, with a Jewish community estimated at 120,000, is by far the largest in the region. Many of the communities have only a few hundred — the figure for Romania is about 12,000.
In each country, the Jewish population figure includes non-Jewish spouses and children of intermarriage, so the number of people considered Jewish according to traditional Jewish law is considerably smaller. In most of the Jewish communities, the population figures have remained relatively constant over the last decade.
The rate of Jews “coming out of the woodwork,” affiliating with the community after the danger passed, has slowed, as has the aliyah rate. “The assumption,” says Gruber, “was that everyone would leave, would go to Israel. The ones who wanted to leave, left,” she says.
“You’re not talking about a numerical renaissance,” Gruber says. “You’re talking about a spiritual renaissance.”
“We have an obligation to help” the region’s revival, says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We have an obligation to help everyone we can. We should not write off any community. These are not communities that voluntarily assimilated.”
Hoenlein says he is “very impressed” by the young leaders he has met during his trips to Eastern Europe. “No one 15 years ago would have imagined this.” In Bucharest, Rabbi Naftali Deutsch, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, serves as spiritual leader of a century-old synagogue that underwent a recent renovation, and he oversees a small Orthodox elementary school.
In Bucharest, the Jewish Community building is undergoing an extensive renovation that will produce a Western-style JCC. Dana Vereanu is among five young Romanian Jews who will lead the institution.
In Bucharest, thousands of Israelis, most of them businessmen, take part in Chabad activities and give the community hope.
“The people see there is a future here,” Rabbi Deutsch says.
In Timisoara (pronounced TimmySHWAreh) — bisected by the magnolia-lined Bega River — an intergenerational crowd socialized both seder nights and played with the Pesach plague items donated by J. Levine Judaica of Manhattan and Congregation Tiferes Yisroel of Baltimore.
Here, as elsewhere in the region, the seders are a highlight of the year’s Jewish calendar. “It’s an opportunity to go out, to see other people,” says Israel Sabag, JDC deputy country director in Romania.
Each year’s seder raises a question — how many people will come next year, how many young Jews will remain. “Of course we are optimistic,” says Dorel Dorian, editor-in-chief of Realitatea Evreiasca.
Gruber is less sanguine. “If you want a Jewish future,” she says, “ I don’t think you’re going to stay in Timisoara.”
“If we are here, there is a future,” says Adrian Gueron, 34, a leader of the new Bucharest JCC.
“If we didn’t believe there is a Jewish future here,” Vereanu says, “we wouldn’t start something so big.”
And Luciana Friedman says when she has children, they will go with her to the seders in Timisoara each year, like she went with her parents and grandparents. “Because it’s a tradition.” Steve Lipman’s travel to Romania was sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee.