A Flame for All Other Candles: Building Jewish Life in Romania

As Chanukah approaches, Ery Pervulescu reflects on what this holiday can teach us about building Jewish community, as well as his own development as a leader.

By Ery Pervulescu - Director of National Educational Programs, Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities | November 18, 2021

Ery Pervulescu, right, delivers a Purim mishloach manot package to an elderly member of the Romanian Jewish community in 2017.

Ery Pervulescu is a passionate Jewish professional and young leader who has dedicated himself to help building Jewish life in his native Romania. Growing up in the small city of Caransebeș, he saw the potential of his community and realized at a young age that there was a deep desire for Jewish celebration, ceremony, and collaboration. As Chanukah approaches, Ery reflects on what this holiday can teach us about building Jewish community, as well as his own development as a leader. 

We celebrate Chanukah — the Festival of Lights — during the shortest and darkest days of the year. Together, we gather round the menorah and light the shammash, a candle that will then serve to ignite all the other candles. Though the menorah carries only a single flame on the first night, by the last, it blazes with light. 

This image inspired and motivated me to find ways in which, as a community, we can spread this light together. I grew up in a city with only about 30 other Jews in western Romania. At the time, we had only a Jewish cemetery, and our synagogue was inoperative. 

All of that began to change when, seven years ago and together with the members of my community, I organized the community’s first-ever Holocaust commemoration at that level. I wanted to host the event in the old synagogue, an impressive space with amazing acoustics. For years, it had been closed and under administration of the Municipality, but I wanted to revive its original purpose and, in so doing, revive my community.

Ery speaks at a 2016 event in the synagogue of Caransebeș, Romania, his hometown.

In preparation, the event was advertised widely and we invited students from various high schools. We expected no more than 50 people to attend. But we were in for a surprise: More than 500 showed up. The synagogue seated 280, so we had to split the event into two parts. Each Holocaust surivor told their story. The event lasted three days. 

By opening the doors to the synagogue, I had opened the doors to a Jewish future, and this event was an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews alike to learn about our history. The overwhelming outpouring of enthusiasm and interest showed me there was a strong desire for Jewish life in my city. And I knew I had to do something. 

That’s how, at 16, I became the administrator of my local synagogue and I start to raise money for the facade renovation. The inside of the synagogue was undoubtedly beautiful, but the outside needed work. I learned how to lead prayers and conduct ceremonies, and I reached out to Jewish people in my city and told them to come to the synagogue for Shabbat and that together, we would revive our community.

Ultimately, we started to organize organ concerts, and again, the response was incredible. We reached out to different opera and musical artists with roots in our city and invited them to come as volunteers to give concerts and their answer was positive. At the first concert, we expected only 150 people, but more than 300 attended! The synagogue was packed, and before the concert even started, there was standing room only. We had to open the front doors so that people sitting outside could hear the music. 

That night, I saw that the synagogue could be more than just a religious space and could serve as both —religious space but also a Jewish cultural cente — a place to rediscover and rebuild Jewish life in its most expansive sense. I started to feel like I was a part of something larger than myself, building bridges between Jewish community and the general population of the city. 

Inspired to do more, I was elected the youngest president of a small Jewish community — of Caransebeș in Romania, at age 18. Then, as I decided I wanted to make a national difference: I moved to Bucharest, where I worked for the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities to coordinate programming between the 39 Jewish communities across the country — events and activities that reached more than 3,000 Jews each year, out of the around 7,000 total Jews in Romania. JDC taught me how important it is to be responsible for each Jew and that we need to bring each Jew closer to the community. I embraced this idea, and it continues to guide me in each decision I make until now.

 The Romanian unit poses for a group photo at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp, in 2019.
The Romanian madrichim (counselors) team poses for a group photo at Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp, in 2019.

With JDC support, I helped to continue Light Delivery, a Chanukah initiative that sends volunteers to the homes of Holocaust survivors and other elderly Romanian Jews. Volunteers deliver holiday care packages filled with menorahs, candles, dreidels, sufganiyot, and more. Using the infrastructure of the Federation, and working with the presidents of the local communities across the country, JCCs, and the Welfare Department, we were able to reach 35 communities across the country. With the local communities, volunteers, and the help of the welfare department, in the first year, more than 350 volunteers delivered packages to over 300 Holocaust survivors, lighting candles with them and listening to their stories. Through the amazing work they are doing, the program grew year by year. In the last edition before the pandemic, the numbers reached more than 800 volunteers and 750 Holocaust survivors. Without JDC’s help, a program of this scale simply would have been difficult to imagine.

This program is more than just an exercise in tzedakah; volunteers and elderly community members often grow close, becoming friends and remaining in touch throughout the year. 

Romanian Jewish community members pose for a photo after distributing Purim mishloach manot packages in 2018.

I’m always inspired when I see not only how happy our seniors are — when they receive the care packages, they know they are not alone — but how much joy it brings the volunteers to give their time and attention to the elderly, listening to their amazing stories. 

Above all, Light Delivery teaches us about the importance of volunteerism and the idea that all Jews are responsible for each other. Each day, programs like this bring Romania’s Jews close to their community. 

Light Delivery is just one of the many national programs organized through the partnership of JDC and the Romanian Jewish Federation. Even if the Romanian Jewish community is relatively small, with Jews spread across the country and most communities numbering less than 100 Jews, there’s a strong feeling of connection. By regularly bringing the people together in national programs, we defeated the distance separating us. This is the recipe that made the Jewish community in Romania one of the most active in Europe.

This year, as we confront the darkness of winter, Chanukah reminds us that, even when things look black, miracles are still possible.

The pandemic has made these programs more essential than ever. When lockdown started, we start to start to create online Jewish programming for people stuck at home. For years, we had organized Bereshit, a four-day seminar on Jewish learning, held in a different city each year and usually attracting about 400 participants.

But when we hosted the event online last year, we had more than 570 attendees, with six professors from Israel and Romania leading the courses. It made me proud to see that Romanian Jews had so much enthusiasm for Jewish life, even during the darkness of the pandemic. 

Ery speaks at the opening of the 2020 edition of Bereshit, the first time the educational seminar was held online.

This year, as we confront the darkness of winter, Chanukah reminds us that, even when things look black, miracles are still possible. Chanukah is about the victory of hope over despair. The key to our victory in Romania is cooperation and team spirit. I feel very lucky and grateful to have the chance to work with all of my colleagues; only together we can achieve even more.

Just like the shammash, lighting all other candles, we each have the power to help light the flame of Jewish life. May it burn as bright as ever in every corner of Romania and the world.

A lifelong volunteer, devoted Jewish professional, and bold young leader, Ery Daniel Pervulescu found his passion for Jewish life at Bereshit, an annual event that brings together Jews from across Romania for a weekend of learning and discovery. He now serves as the director of national educational Jewish programs and member of the Board of Directors at the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities, where he coordinates Jewish educational programs and events initiatives with JCCs and all 39 Jewish communities across Romania. 

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

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