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Around the Jewish World Middle Generation of Jews Provide Key to Romanian Community’s Future

January 7, 2002
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In the “Star Trek” television series, the mission of the Starship Enterprise was to explore new worlds and boldly go where no one had gone before.

In a sense, Jewish community strategists in Romania are trying to do something similar.

They are trying to open up to a group of Jews who little more than a year ago were almost totally ignored or hardly thought to exist — the middle generation of adults aged 35 to 65.

Until recently, this generation was virtually absent from Jewish communal life, according to Jodi Guralnick of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

It is often presumed, she said, that people in this age bracket — burdened by financial and familial responsibilities — are either not interested in or not willing to devote time to the Jewish community.

But given the fact that most Jewish lay leaders in Romania are elderly and that most young Jews want to leave Romania because of the economy, the middle generation is now seen as the key for at least medium-term Jewish community survival.

As a result, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania has recently begun to implement outreach programs targeted at adults.

These include clubs and cultural events, leadership training and educational seminars, and even just collecting names and address to find out who’s out there.

The first middle-generation clubs were set up last summer in Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj and Oradea, with the help of a youth club network established little more than a year before.

“There are about 2,500 people in the middle generation,” Paul Schwartz, the federation’s newly named coordinator of middle-generation programs, told a policy meeting of the group in Bucharest, Romania, in December.

“These Jews represent a reserve of new participants in Jewish community activities and assure the continuation of Jewish life.”

Approximately half of prewar Romania’s 800,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. Most went to Israel. Today, about 12,000 Jews are known to live in Romania.

For decades, the pattern of Jewish life here was to encourage aliyah among young people and, with the support of the JDC, 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 post-Communist countries began furthering Jewish education and championing communal development, little was done in Romania to break this mold.

It was only in late 1999 that the federation dramatically reversed its priorities and initiated education and outreach projects for young people, including the youth clubs and a distance-learning program.

Even so, many if not most young people still say they want to leave, if only for economic reasons.

The Jews who make up today’s middle generation were, in effect, the minority of young Jews who did not want to make aliyah or otherwise leave the country.

Although most were at least formally affiliated with the Jewish community, they scarcely figured on the Jewish communal radar until Guralnick, who is now the desk officer for Eastern European projects at JDC in New York, spent a year in Romania in 1999-2000 on a Ralph Goldman fellowship in international Jewish communal service.

Her assignment was to seek out members of the middle generation and find out who they were and what they thought.

Her report, based on questionnaires and personal interviews, revealed a deep sense of personal Jewish identity coupled with a deep sense of alienation from organized Jewry.

“She discovered many uninvolved Jews who were prepared to become involved and others, who have contact with the community, prepared to do more so if certain methods for reaching them are used,” said Zvi Feine, JDC’s country director for Romania.

Both the strong sense of Jewish identity and the contradictory disconnect from organized Jewish life were holdovers from Romania’s Communist past.

Under communism, the federation, under the charismatic leadership of the late Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen, ran a more extensive communal services program than anywhere else in the Communist world.

The trade off, as Guralnick put it, was that the organized Jewish community had to “enter the fold of the Communist system and become an organ of the state, notorious for its centralized leadership, red tape and nontransparency.”

“The single most important finding of this study is that middle-generation Jews want — more than anything else — to feel needed by the community,” according to Guralnick. “They want to have a voice in community decision-making, and be able to feel that the Jewish community belongs not only to the leadership, but to them.”

Feine and others involved in Jewish policy-making say that the new federation programs for the middle generation and young represent a breakthrough in the central Jewish leadership’s approach to these issues.

But the Communist-era mentality still lingers.

In some communities elderly communal leaders are jealous of their positions and fear being displaced by younger activists. And provincial Jewish communities, demanding more say in decision-making, chafe under the federation’s still highly centralized structure.

“When officials from Bucharest come to visit communities, you can see the light in people’s hearts,” said Schwartz’s son Andrei, a student who is active in Timisoara’s Jewish community.

“But that’s not enough. The provinces need to be included in decision-making. It is sometimes frustrating that everything is focused in Bucharest.”

Paul Schwartz ran into these attitudes when attempting to make first contact with middle-generation Jews. He personally visited 14 Jewish communities around the country and had phone contact with and sent questionnaires out to 45.

“At first, the initial reaction of a great many community leaders was negative,” he said.

In three towns, community leaders even told him flatly that middle-generation Jews had no interest in communal life, he said.

“But when I myself spoke to middle-generation Jews there they told me that they had not been consulted and in fact they did want to participate in all activities.”

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