Learning Fest reinvigorates Romanian Jews

December 21, 2012

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Over the past 20 years, Romania’s Jewish community has been completely transformed. “For us, Jewish life is really integrated with modern life,” says Luciana Friedmann, president of the Jewish community of Timisoara, Romania.

“Two hundred and forty people singing Jewish songs like Kol Ha’Olam Kulo—an iconic song of Jewish courage—sounds very different from only 50 people singing. This was the biggest common Shabbat we’ve ever had here!” says the 34-year-old Friedmann. Watching her community swell in numbers has been a life-long personal joy for her.

Friedmann became curious about Judaism at a young age, attending Hebrew classes and studying with the community’s long-time leader, Rabbi Earnest Neumann z”l. He led the community for some 50 years, maintaining a connection to Romanian Jewry’s flourishing past through decades of dismal times.

Home to approximately 800,000 Jews in the interwar period, Romania suffered devastating losses of Jewish lives during the Holocaust and the subsequent decades of communist repression. At the fall of the Iron Curtain, remnants of ravaged communities— mostly elderly people clinging to remnants of the oldest traditions—remained sprinkled across the country.

“When I was a child, there were no camps, regional events, or programs for people young and old, interested in various facets of Jewish life. Everything we have now started with JDC—the knowledge and know-how they gave us; the camps, Shabbatonim, retreats, and trainings they organized. These were the seeds and from there the community slowly took shape,” says Friedmann.

Today, Friedmann’s town of Timisoara is home to 600 Jews. JDC has helped rebuild a solid infrastructure, including the recently opened JCC, Romania’s fourth, to care for the region’s Jewish elderly and needy and increasing numbers of younger people who are participating in Jewish programming— learning, socializing, and pitching in and organizing.

“In our community, you can’t feel the gap between generations because most of the programs can be attended by people of every age; the elderly here are interested in modern subjects, and over half of our board is from the young generation,” she explains. Friedmann says the older community members lead prayer services and there’s an exciting and engaging space where young people feel they can contribute and express themselves.

Last year, Timisoara proudly hosted Romania’s third Bereshit JCU, a project that brings university-level professors of Jewish history, philosophy, and bible studies to communities across Europe.

Created by JDC to attract the young and middle generation Jews in Eastern and Central Europe who are largely disconnected from Jewish life, Bereshit was launched in Budapest and Bucharest in 2008, and has since brought hundreds of Jews together in capitals like Riga and Vilnius.

Timisoara’s Bereshit was organized by a large team of volunteers with the support of JDC. Luciana was overcome with the enthusiasm of everyone eager to get involved. “I was so impressed to hear people coming out from all sides asking ‘How can I help?’”

More than 200 people attended—the vast majority of them first-timers to the event and under the age of 65. Rebuffing the view that there is only one kind of Judaism, this Bereshit event gave ordinary people access to the rich pluralistic history of Judaism. The adult Jewish education provided by the program also fills in the knowledge gap between parents with little Jewish background and their children, who were born into post-communist Romanian Jewry and have had the benefit of gaining broader Jewish knowledge and experiences through Jewish schools and youth programming.

Three professors came from Israel and were excitedly greeted by Jews from across Romania intrigued to learn about diverse elements of Judaism from the Kaddish to Kabbalah. There was even a class on the Shofar, where it was sounded aloud and many heard it for the first time.

The event was a rare opportunity for Jews from across the country to meet and spend a Shabbat weekend together.

Marion Cohen, who has been participating in Bereshit with her husband since it was a two-day seminar in Bucharest a few years back, was thrilled to attend the event in her home community of Timisoara.

“To me, Bereshit is a rare opportunity to learn about Judaism because the only things that I knew of my heritage were taught to me by my grandmother. It’s exciting to meet teachers from Israel and analyze religious texts and sources,” Cohen says. But for her, Bereshit’s value is social as much as it is educational. “We see friends here; it’s a real gathering. Even my daughter, who is a student in the UK, came back home to witness the event! I’m very grateful to the JDC for making this possible.”

The programs of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), like the one that supports Romanian Jews in Timisoara, are funded in part by the generosity of the Tidewater Jewish community through gifts to UJFT’s annual campaign. Every dollar raised makes a significant difference to real people like Luciana—at home, in Israel, and in 70 countries around the world. To make a gift, visit JewishVA.org.

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