100 Years of JDC in Romania

Dalia Golda, 34, works with a student at Gan Eden, the Jewish kindergarten she started with JDC support.

Caring for the Poor, Catalyzing the Next Generation

BUCHAREST — Dalia Golda isn’t one to sit around and wait for others to take action.

“A lot of us feel responsible for returning the investment. Our responsibility is here.”

The former deputy director of the Romanian capital’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), she knows a thing or two about starting things from the ground up.

So when she realized her city needed a Jewish kindergarten, she decided to open one herself. Gan Eden, now in its seventh year, nurtures about 25 children annually.

But even this go-getter admits that when it comes to helping advance community life for Romanian Jews, she’s always working with a strong partner: JDC.

“I think JDC is the man in black behind everything here, in a way,” she said, laughing. “It has the bigger picture on what Jewish life is, and it gives these little pushes.”

This year, JDC celebrates 100 years of working in Romania — a remarkable century of helping the country’s neediest Jews and building Jewish life and leaders despite the double challenges of the Holocaust and Communist-era religious repression.

Today, Romania has about 8,000 Jews living in 39 distinct communities with 83 synagogues across the country, with 3,000 residing in Bucharest alone. That’s down from a pre-war Jewish population of 800,000; half of whom were killed in the Holocaust, while 95 percent of those who remained emigrated to Israel and other countries.

In 1917, shortly after the organization set up shop in Romania, JDC transferred funds to local Jewish relief organizations and supported some 7,000 Jewish students from Romania who were studying in what was then Czechoslovakia. JDC also supported Jewish orphans and provided funds for economic rehabilitation work — work that JDC has continued to pioneer and prioritize globally for a century.

With the help of the international Jewish health organization OSE, JDC helped modernize medical practices in Romania, also funding public health programs, Jewish schools, child care, and vocational training. When an influx of refugees arrived in Romania in the early 1920s, JDC stepped in to supervise their reception and evacuation.

Along with many other non-governmental and religious organizations, JDC was asked to leave Romania in March 1949 by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who headed the Communist government at the time.

Nearly two decades later, in 1967, at the official invitation of the government, JDC returned and immediately went to work to help care for the aging Jewish community.

In partnership with the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FEDROM), JDC provided financial and professional support for a network of Jewish institutional and social welfare services throughout the country that included a new program to assist elderly Holocaust survivors through cash assistance, winter relief, medical care through clinics in Bucharest and beyond, food aid, home care, old age homes, and day care centers.

Masia Liba Herscu Beer is one of the many elderly clients who receive critical care from SMAD.

JDC still funds many of these historic programs in partnership with FEDROM, but it is primarily focused today on building capacity in the local community and catalyzing the next generation of leaders.

“As I always say, the goal is to bring Jewish people close to the community,” said Israel Sharli Sabag, JDC’s director in Romania. “Once they are close, we can help them, they can help each other and they can help us.”

Many of the brightest stars on the Romanian Jewish landscape came from small cities with little to no Jewish infrastructure. Their passion for Jewish identity was sparked through experiences like Szarvas, JDC's flagship international Jewish summer camp in Hungary, operated in partnership with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, that brings together some 2,000 children and teens from 25 countries each year.

Magda Kupferberg, 27, works for the Bucharest JCC as an educational adviser and program director for summer camps — connecting different generations, training madrichim (counselors), and coordinating holiday celebrations.

For her, Szarvas was a revelation.

“When I went to camp, I felt like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts — and then it was time to go back, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go back to my regular life,’” she said. “I realize now that there were some turning points in my life that made me who I am today, and the first one was Szarvas.”

Kupferberg and her friends are part of the team that runs Bereshit, Romania’s flagship biannual Jewish educational retreat, which was developed in partnership with JDC. A weekend of learning held each time in a different city, the fall 2016 edition drew almost 400 people.

Many of them also work at the JCC, putting together programs for teens and young adults, coordinating the community’s Shalom Romania radio station, and organizing events for college students and young professionals.

Kupferberg’s friend Miriam Rosentvaig, 27, serves as the English teacher at Golda’s Jewish kindergarten.

“It’s a small community,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody, and that turns out to be critical.”

Even as the Romanian Jewish community invests in its young people as the engine for a vibrant Jewish future, its critical work assisting the most vulnerable continues with JDC support.

Some 2,500 people — Holocaust survivors, poor adults in ill health, children and families, and more — are helped by the Social and Medical Assistance Department (SMAD), the social welfare arm of FEDROM. They receive a variety of services: food vouchers, Meals on Wheels, medicine, nursing and homecare, advanced medical care, Passover packages, and winter relief.

The community also organizes activities for the elderly in five community day centers, a Jewish summer camp for the elderly, its own edition of JDC’s Warm Homes program for socially isolated elderly, and the late Dr. Steve Kutner's flagship Project Vision initiative — a 20-year FEDROM program started at JDC’s behest and with the organization’s financial support that provides free cataract surgeries to SMAD clients and other community members.

Mona Bejan coordinates social welfare activities for FEDROM, the Romanian Jewish community's umbrella organization.

“It’s heartbreaking to see some of the clients. When you get to know people like this, you can’t have enough compassion,” said Mona Bejan, 43, SMAD’s new director. “You feel like you don’t have enough means to help them enough, to support them enough. We help in the best way we know and as much as we can, given our resources.”

The community also operates the Amalia and Chief Rabbi Dr. Moses Rosen Home, a nursing home established in 1979 serving mainly elderly clients, but also middle-aged individuals with mental illness. Often, volunteers from the JCC and groups from Golda’s kindergarten visit the home’s 80 residents.

JDC’s impact on the Romanian Jewish community is easy to see when you look at the story of the Bucharest JCC, now celebrating its tenth year, said Adi Gueron, 43, its director.

Back in 2005, there was no community center — just a FEDROM youth department with a handful of events and one signature annual summer camp for Jews of all ages.

“JDC came and presented the concept of a JCC. We’d never heard of it,” Gueron said, sitting at the same table where the idea was first hatched. “We thought we’d never have that. It looked too expensive, too high-tech for an Eastern European country.”

JDC did the lion’s share of the legwork, he said, partnering with local community organizations, leveraging funding, conducting focus groups, and recruiting top-notch talent — like Gueron and Golda.

Now, the JCC is a modern three-story building housing a cornucopia of community treasures: programs for kids and families, a gym, a day center for the elderly, weekly Shabbat celebrations, a mikveh, a youth lounge, and more.

And that one summer camp has turned into 14 weeklong sessions targeting a variety of different ages and reaching 700 Jews each year — 10 percent of Romania’s total Jewish population.

“We’re a growing community now, and JDC gave us the tools.”

“What’s bringing people here to the JCC is the “J” part — the Jewish energy that they can’t find anywhere else in the city,” Gueron said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a party or it's the gym. We create connections and we ensure the future of Jewish life in Romania. It might not be the whole fix, but it’s certainly part of it.”

Cristian Ezri, 32, said the Romanian Jewish community is on the cusp of a young leadership revolution.

When he first came back from Szarvas, older community leaders in his home city of Oradea walked out of the synagogue when he tried to introduce a new tune for “Adon Olam.” Increasingly, though, they look to him and his peers for guidance and innovative ideas.

“To change the establishment is like moving a mountain,” he said. “This is our 40 years in the desert. We can see the worst behind us and what the future holds ahead.”

Kupferberg said she’s committed to staying in Romania, as a way of giving back to a Jewish community that has given her so much.

“A lot of us feel responsible for returning the investment. Our responsibility is here,” she said. “We’re not such a large community. If any of us leave, it puts so much on the shoulders of the few who remain.”

Young people here used to count down the days until they move to Israel, the U.S., or Western Europe; now, a new generation of young Jewish activists is committed to the Romanian Jewish future.

For Golda, the kindergarten director, that change in thought is everything: Romanian Jews are in charge of their own destiny now.

“People ask me, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ That never happened before — the culture is changing at every level,” she said. “JDC opened the gates. We’re not a surviving community anymore. We’re a growing community now, and JDC gave us the tools.”