In Bucharest, Creating a Home for Ukraine’s Jews
With over two decades of Jewish communal experience, Adrian Gueron is one face of Jewish Romania's Ukraine crisis response.
By Adrian Gueron - Director, JCC Bucharest | July 11, 2022
As director of the JDC-supported JCC Bucharest, Adrian Gueron is an expert Jewish communal professional. And when the war in Ukraine broke out, Adrian and his team immediately began to play a critical role in JDC and the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities’ (FEDROM) refugee response. In this reflection, Adrian walks us through this response and the more than two decades of Jewish communal experience that prepared him for this moment.
As February came to a close, all of us at JCC Bucharest anticipated the end of the pandemic. Of course, the pandemic wasn’t really over, but we hoped that, with relaxed restrictions, we could finally restart the full gamut of programs. We looked forward to our community feeling like a community again — together, in person, at the JCC.
We all know what happened next: the war, the chaos, and the refugees in search of help. All of us at JCC Bucharest braced ourselves for the spiking humanitarian needs, knowing that we, as Jews, were responsible for the welfare of the Jews fleeing Ukraine.
Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh — all Jews are responsible for each other. At JCC Bucharest – a center of Romanian Jewish life that JDC founded in partnership with FEDROM in 2007 – we live out this value each and every day. And when war broke out, we didn’t hesitate: We put it into action for Ukraine’s Jews.
None of this happened overnight. For me, it was more than two decades in the making.
I can trace so much of it back to 1999, when I was accepted into JDC’s Buncher Community Leadership Program. Buncher changed my life. Not only did I meet Jews from all across Romania, I spent three weeks in Israel, where I met Jewish communal leaders from around the world.
I came away from Buncher inspired to help write the next chapter of the Romanian Jewish story. And almost 25 years later, this program is as important as ever. When you invest in one person, one leader, it transforms the entire community for the better. And I’m proud to have helped transform my community.
Buncher led me to help found JCC Bucharest in 2007. All of us here at the JCC were trying to do something new for Jews here in Bucharest, and across Romania. In the beginning, we were focused more on fun events that would draw people in — but over time, as more and more people came, we developed Jewish educational and spiritual programming that, though fun, responded to a very real hunger for something more serious, too.
Enter the JCC on any given day and you’ll see a dynamic cross-section of Jewish life. We offer community members the chance not only to learn, but to express their Jewish identities to the fullest extent. In our classrooms, we offer Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and more. And when it comes to recreational activities, we offer programs for families, young children, teenagers, young adults, and of course, Jewish seniors. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a place.
What makes this place special — what makes JCC Bucharest not just a community, but a family — is that so many of these programs happen at the same time. Grandparents socialize in one room while their grandchildren learn Hebrew in the next. And on Shabbat, everyone gathers to light candles — all generations. I’m proud to have helped create this space that is so meaningful for every Romanian Jew.
And we’re also a place that cares for those in need. That’s why we launched volunteer programs, such as our Light Delivery program, which brings food, holiday supplies, and the joyful spirit of Chanukah to the most vulnerable members of our community — in more than 35 communities across the country. We’re a place where Jews can help other Jews.
We do this life-saving work with JDC’s support, using infrastructure the Federation put in place, in cooperation with community presidents, JCCs, and the Welfare Department of FEDROM.
So, when the Ukraine war began, we were prepared: We had already spent the last 15 years building a community infrastructure that we could activate to welcome the refugees.
That’s why, on Feb. 28, just four days after war broke out, we launched a 24/7 call center with Russian speakers answering the phone at all hours, helping their fellow Jews. Many of the refugees we worked with since the war began were lost and needed accommodation, or they needed our help arranging transportation to their next destination. Whatever their needs, we were ready.
I, too, answered calls. Late one night, I received a call: Somebody was lost in the airport and needed assistance. Could I help them? It was instinctual: I dropped everything and got them to safety.
That was a typical call — someone needed our support, and they needed it as soon as possible. On our end, we couldn’t afford to wait: We helped them on the spot.
Our team was totally dedicated. For the first few weeks, we stayed at the JCC 24/7. Then we grew our team a bit and did shifts. There were different types of volunteers. Some volunteers picked people up from the train station. Others were part of our operations team, coordinating transportation, accommodation, medical requests, and more. All of us did anything — our phones were on day and night.
Once they got here, the refugees found the help they needed. With JDC’s support, we offered housing, food, medicine, and other vital refugee assistance. We had all kinds of supplies here — we even prepared coloring books for kids (I printed them myself).
Above all, we tried to offer them comfort. They were scared. They just escaped war. And they needed to feel they weren’t alone. We gave them a community, a place to catch their breath.
Above all, we tried to offer them comfort – they needed to feel they weren’t alone.
People brought their whole lives. I saw people with their cats, dogs, even snakes — the entire family. They were running to save their lives, their children’s lives, the lives of their pets.
We couldn’t have done any of this without JDC. Our Romanian Jewish community has a century-long partnership with JDC. They’ve helped train new leaders across the country, through seminars and other programs. And with JDC’s help, we were able to meet this critical moment — finding accommodation for refugees, giving them food, and helping them find their way to whatever comes next.
All Jews should be proud of what we’re doing. They should be proud that kol yisrael areveim zeh lazeh is alive, it’s real, and it’s happening here in Romania.
And whatever the needs are, we’ll continue to be here, no matter how long it takes.
Adrian Gueron is the director of the JDC-supported JCC Bucharest.