Remembering our past and building our future” was the theme of this spring’s National Young Leadership Cabinet Study Mission to Bucharest, Romania and Budapest, Hungary. In April, I, along with Taryn Berelowitz, Stacie Friedman, and 85 other JFNA Cabinet members, experienced a roller coaster of emotions throughout the week: from sorrow when confronted with the lives lost during the Holocaust, to uplift when witnessing the renewed spirit of the millennial Jews in these cities.
I joined Cabinet two years ago with the simple goals of meeting and working with like-minded philanthropic young Jewish leaders, and developing a deeper understanding of how our efforts help Jews in our communities, overseas and in Israel. Between last year’s mission to Baku and Istanbul and this year’s study mission, I have achieved this and so much more. It has become so clear to me that the work that JFNA and its partner agencies do for thousands of Jews throughout the world is absolutely vital.
Before World War II there were 850,000 Jews living in Romania; now there are fewer than 10,000, with about half of them in Bucharest and the rest spread out across 37 other communities. It was in Bucharest that I visited Bella Holban, a survivor who lives alone in a third-floor walk-up. She is 93 years old and can no longer navigate the stairs because she is nearly blind and depends heavily on a cane. She told us that she is physically well cared for, with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee providing home health care five days a week and other assistance such as food vouchers, medicine, and winter relief. But it was clear to us that she needs so much more. With no children of her own and a nephew in Israel, she is completely isolated once the home care workers leave. “I am so alone,” she repeated, over and over. “So alone.”
On the happier side, the young Jews of Bucharest are empowered and determined to have a rich Jewish life, even though there are only five synagogues left in all of Romania. There are signs of both history and the new energy everywhere. The synagogues fall under national landmark protection so the Romanian government is paying for their restoration. The Teatrul Evreiesc (the Jewish Theatre created during World War II when Jews were not permitted to work amongst other Romanians) is also being renovated. The JCC is extremely busy with constant programming. Six years ago, the JDC assisted in establishing Gan Eden, a nursery school which is now self-sustaining and thriving with 42 children enrolled.
Jewish life in Budapest is more complex than in Bucharest. Fewer than 200,000 of the pre-war 800,000 Hungarian Jewish population survived the war. Of those, 100,000 left post-war during Soviet communism and after the Revolution of 1956. During 1944, most countryside Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Because WWII and the Nazis were late in coming to Hungary, Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto, now the hip Jewish Triangle (anchored by the three major synagogues), was the only ghetto that was liberated and not liquidated. Now, the Jewish community of well over 100,000, over 5 percent of the total Budapest population, is the third largest in Europe, yet anti-Semitism is pervasive, unspoken, and political.
Our scholar-in-residence, Prof. Michael Miller of Central European University, said that while the population is relatively large, it is not what he considers vibrant. Few Jews regularly practice any cultural or religious aspects of Judaism or even publicly acknowledge they are Jewish. Most survivors buried or forgot their religion as a means of survival. Their children have become known as the “missing generation,” but the grandchildren are returning to their roots to some extent after discovering they are Jewish when looking through family photos and seeing a grandfather wearing a tallit or kipa, or studying their family trees at school. Camp Szarvas, sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the JDC, is having a huge impact in helping bring back Jewish life throughout Europe with every young adult I met attending as children. Children attend short sessions to explore and learn about their Jewish roots and traditions in a summer camp setting. Often it is the first time these children say the motzi, dance the hora, or sing “Shalom Aleichem.”
With the rise of Islamic extremism and renewed anti-Semitism throughout the world, the strength of local Jewish communities in Eastern Europe should be of primary importance to all of us. I am so grateful that I was able to experience first-hand how Greater MetroWest and its affiliated agencies in Bucharest and Budapest are serving in the spirit of tzedaka, tikun olam, and klal yisrael to build bridges to our Jewish brethren worldwide, and to preserve the value of every single Jewish life and community.