Alfred Moses likes to say that an unplanned meeting — “a coincidence … a miracle” — with a few teenage strangers on the streets of Bucharest four decades ago changed the arc of his life.
A successful lawyer and an adviser to U.S. presidents, Moses was in the capital of Romania in February 1976, leading a delegation from the American Jewish Committee, which he served as president. Three Jewish teens approached him and asked if he and his wife, Carol, were American Jews. On hearing “yes,” the young men began to describe the problems they faced in the communist country that had a long history of anti-Semitism. “The situation here is terrible, especially for Jews. Help us get out.” Could Moses help them? Again, he said yes.
“From that moment on, I was hooked,” Moses, 89, writes in “Bucharest Diary: Romania’s Journey from Darkness to Light” (Brookings Institution Press), his new autobiography.
Back in the U.S., Moses made the Jews of Romania – the Jewish population then was about 20,000, mostly elderly – his mission. “My passion,” he calls it, sitting one recent morning in the Manhattan penthouse where he splits his time, with apartments in Washington and Tel Aviv as well.
He describes in an interview and in his book how he used his skills as a lawyer and his connections in Washington, where he had worked for two decades, to lobby successfully to get Romanian Jews out of the then-Iron Curtain country.
The three teens eventually left their homeland, as did thousands of other Romanian Jews, most going to Israel or the United States.
The advocacy work Moses did on the Romanian Jews’ behalf at the highest levels of the US government led to contacts in Congress and the White House – and, in 1993, “out of the blue” – an invitation to become U.S. ambassador to Romania in the Clinton administration.
“I had some know-how. I knew my way around Washington. I had the contacts [in Romania],” Moses says of the invitation to join the diplomatic corps. Though happy in his legal work at the prestigious Covington & Burling firm, he took up the suggestion as an opportunity to expand his work for Romania. Confirmed by the Senate, he served as ambassador three years, 1991-94, as Romania was emerging from the “darkness” of Communism to which the book’s title alludes.
Though the book’s central point is his experience as a neophyte ambassador, Moses’s memoir also touches on his youth in Baltimore, his decision to become an attorney, his years in the U.S. Navy, his leadership of the AJC, his friendship with several presidents and other prominent politicians, and his post-ambassadorial duties that included appointment as special envoy to Cyprus.
The book describes how Moses became an informal advisor to the Romanian government, shepherding its move towards democracy and the West; how he maintained his interest in Romanian Jewry, visiting isolated communities around the country; how he maintained his level of Jewish observance, keeping kosher and Shabbat while tending to his diplomatic duties; and how he established relations at the highest levels of the country’s political and Jewish leadership.
Moses also writes of coming back to the U.S. every month to be with his wife, who was battling cancer; she had insisted that Moses accept the ambassadorial job. She was able to join him three times in Romania during his years there. She died in 2004.
In 2005, Moses married Fern Schad, a London-born widow.
Moses’ book reflects its author, who had served as President Jimmy Carter’s Jewish liaison. It’s a case study, an insider’s look, at how one formerly communist country became free. Its intended readership, Moses says, is people interested in Eastern Europe, U.S. foreign policy, Romania specifically and Jewish history.
Still fit and in good health, Moses walks a mile or more to appointments, still working in Washington at his law firm and at Promontory Interfinancial Network, a financial technology firm.
Moses noted that his dedication to Romanian Jews – and later, to Romania itself – became personal, but not in a familial sense. “As far as I know, none of my ancestors had ever set foot in Romania, yet the country had always fascinated me.”
Most estimates of the country’s current Jewish population put the figure at several thousand.
Has anti-Semitism decreased there?
“It is a hard question to answer,” Moses says. Anti-Semitism still exists in Romania, he says, “but probably not different from other xenophobics (anti-Hungarian, Roma, Russian, etc.).” While there is “a residue of anti-Semitism … there is not official anti-Semitism, meaning church or state. Life in Eastern Europe is complicated with lots of impulses hanging around, not all of them positive.”
Unlike some wealthy men or women who aspire to an ambassadorial post for the prestige, Moses says he had no thoughts of becoming an ambassador. And he had not contributed to Clinton’s presidential election campaign. “Not one cent.”
Moses, who participated in a three-week orientation course for new ambassadors before leaving for Bucharest, was appointed to the post, says Marc Grossman, a longtime friend of Moses and a career diplomat who retired from the State Department in 2005, because of his knowledge of Romania.
“He was able to honestly convey that he cared for the Romanian people,” says Grossman, whose years as ambassador to Turkey coincided with Moses’ in Romania. “Al’s always got a plan, and he perseveres.” Moses reached out to Romanians across the political spectrum. “He respected the career people who worked in his embassy and he looked for allies wherever he could get them. That’s what made him successful.”
Though Moses is unapologetically Jewish, he said he represented the U.S. on an ecumenical basis, pointing out that while ambassador he was able to get Christian Bibles into Romania and some jailed Christian clergy out.
He gave notice in 1994 that he wished to return fulltime to the U.S. His posting in Romania ended, he writes, when President Clinton visited the country at the end of the year; Moses coordinated the president’s itinerary and was with him when Clinton drew a crowd of 500,000 people at a speech in Bucharest. Then he accompanied Clinton back to the U.S.
“To fly back to the United States on Air Force One with the President,” he says, “is a nice way to retire.”