A dream becomes a reality

by | Sep 19, 2014 | Other News

Zoya Shvartzman, Annie Sandler and Doron Goldstein, make a home visit (to the man in the center) in Bucharest.

Zoya Shvartzman, Annie Sandler and Doron Goldstein, make a home visit (to the man in the center) in Bucharest.

by Karen Lombart

For a very long time, Annie Sandler has wanted to share her excitement about the Romanian Jewish community with others in Tidewater. This summer, her dream came true. Learning that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was taking an Ambassadors trip to the Eastern European country, she decided to invite six women to join her on the journey.

The “Dream Team,” led by Sandler, included Rachel Abrams, Elyse Cardon, Robin Mancoll, Carin Simon, Megan Zuckerman and me. Together we were going to witness the miracle of the JDC’s work in Romania. From an “idea” to a reality, a multidimensional Jewish infrastructure has been built in a country where the Jewish population was decimated. From 1.5 million Jews before World War I to 8,000 today, the community is on its way to seeing “life” again.

Sandler has seen the transformation of Jewish renewal over the past 14 years. Once a vision of Zvi Feine’s (former JDC director for Romania), Camp Be’YaHad in Cristian, Transylvania has proven to be the entry point for many Romanians to explore their Jewish roots lost during the Holocaust and the era of Communism. Sandler believed in the camp when she first saw it and has been instrumental in quietly providing financial assistance for improvements throughout the years.

We actually thought that we were still “dreaming” when we landed in Bucharest. We had traveled all night on Austrian Airlines, arriving on Tuesday, July 22. “Lipstick ready” for lunch, we were taken to a charming 130-year-old café where our tour guide, Rodica Gavrila, began to tell us the history of Romania. We were joined by the wonderful JDC staffers— Sandy Katz, our Tidewater Regional JDC representative, Zoya Shvartzman, who spoke to the Women’s Cabinet at the 2012 Spring Luncheon and the current JDC director for Romania, Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina and Macedonia, Israel Sabag. Although, driven by van through the city streets, it was by the hearts and souls of our tour leaders and guides that we were transported into this other world.

We laughed our way through the city of Bucharest as we listened to Gavrila’s accented description of the present day government and we whizzed by the humongous buildings that had been built during Dictator Ceaucescu’s reign. With a population of 2.2 million people today in Bucharest, many of the scaffolded buildings draped in plastic were being repaired from their years of neglect during Communism. Delirious from little sleep, we were beginning to feel “coo-coo” (Gavrila’s favorite word) by the day’s end. We were given just enough time to freshen up before dinner where we met two wonderful women.

Magda had been a camper at Camp Be’YaHad in Cristian when she met her husband who was a young counselor. She declared, “Eddy and I share a passion for improving the Jewish world now that we have discovered the joy of Jewish peoplehood. For our wedding ceremony, my husband and I hired a narrator to explain the Jewish rituals so that our guests might understand the significance of the ceremony.” We learned from Carmen who works in the Ambassador’s office that she sings in the JCC choir, which performs throughout the city.

The Jewish Community Center of Bucharest was bustling when we arrived the following evening. As Adrian Gueron, the director described, “We used to be a JCC without walls. Today, we have this center that allows us to come together for our daily Jewish life in Bucharest. Our Jewish experience now extends beyond the holidays.” Painted like a fairytale, we found the preschool center housing the choir practice that evening. We peeked into the room and found Carmen and 20 others singing familiar Hebrew songs. We listened quietly as we were motioned to walk in. Within moments, the room erupted into a dancing circle.

A few families gathered in the main reception area. On the bottom floor, we discovered a cooking class in session, a young adult lounge illuminated by neon, a library area and a broadcasting center with a Jewish talk show in progress. On the third floor, we found a class being taught to 60 seniors. Rachel Abrams said, “I could feel the joy as I walked through the building. It was palpable.”

The Center attracts families—affiliated and unaffiliated, Israeli businessmen and women, students living in the city and the elderly. Posters for its activities hang throughout the city. One of their summer events was the “Festival Jerusalem” which brings 20,000 people to the center of Bucharest to experience Jewish life—food, dancing, singing and a fabricated Western wall for wishes and dreams.

For dinner, we joined the leadership of the Federation in the Great Synagogue of Bucharest. Dr. Weiner, the elected president, introduced the night’s festivities with a presentation to Sandler for her philanthropy to the Romanian community. The medal has only been awarded to three kings and a few non-Jews. Sandler accepted it graciously and complimented the president, “I love Romania. You treat your guests so warmly. As president, you encourage the young leadership to be involved and you give them the opportunity to be invested. All of you understand the importance of Jewish community and its significance in maintaining our peoplehood.”

Between gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, we heard from Dr. Mona Bejan, head of the Welfare Clinic and Mr. Marinesco, the editor and publisher of the Jewish Reality Magazine which has a monthly newsletter with a readership of 3,000 people.

By 9:30 am the next morning, we were standing quietly outside the security-protected office of His Excellency, Dan Ben Eliezer, Israeli Ambassador to Romania, waiting for approval to enter. Happy to see us with his friend, Israel Sabag, we were ushered into a small conference room.

While telling us his fascinating personal history, the ambassador revealed, “Romania is the climax of my foreign ministry’s 12 posts because it has brought me full circle. My parents were both Holocaust survivors. My mother was born in Yash. Her brother was killed during a pogrom and buried in a mass grave. This country is now in transition politically, socially and economically. Romania has ALL the ingredients for growth. It just needs the glue.” Eliezer implied that it was the right time to make the Jewish community strong again. He continues to encourage the involvement of Jewish youth and emerging leaders. The population numbers constantly change because the Holocaust survivors are passing away and others are leaving the country. Fortunately, many Romanians are rediscovering their Jewish roots and identifying with the community. He stressed that Romania and Israel have always had a good relationship, even during the time of Ceausescu’s Dictatorship that ended in 1989.

Given the opportunity to understand JDC on an intimate level, we each made two “home visits.” All of us felt a genuine sense of gratitude from the JDC’s clients who were told through the interpreter that we were visiting from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

We saw Holocaust survivors, medical recipients and/or children in need: Andreea Livia Davidovici was on “The Death Train” going nowhere in 1941 at the age of 11; Herscu Ber Masia Liba suffered from severe hunger and was forced to hide with her family in 1941; Calinescu Iacobine, now 89, was evacuated from her home during the Communistic years and forced to live in one room with five people; Israilovici Mina, also an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, was the caregiver for her 50-year-old mentally challenged, bed ridden daughter; Suffering from cancer, we met Barzoi Camelia who anticipates her multiple surgeries and continuous medical care; and Sara Rebeca and Alberto Chigulescu, described as children in need, receive medical care, school supplies and clothing donations. Trained in social service, each caseworker gave us an explanation before we greeted the clients and their caregivers.

“The visits were heart wrenching,” said Megan Zuckerman and added, “The hugs were so intense. They felt like they might last forever.”

The hugs continued when we went to the Rosen Old Age Home run by the local Romanian Jewish community. We arrived just in time for a spirited birthday party for three of the residents. After the singing and accordion playing, we were addressed by a 95-year-old gentleman who expressed his gratitude for the center where the residents are “born again” with a plethora of social programs. We continued with a tour of the facility to find that the entire second and third floors were being renovated because the nursing home has been such a success.

Added into our late afternoon schedule, we stopped for a short visit to meet the Minister of Youth and Sports. After she spoke to us of her “dreams” for a country wide sports program, Elyse Cardon presented the minister with a packet of postcards that Cardon had created from her photographs of her last trip to Israel with the Hineni Mission. Ironically, the Minister, a four-time Olympic medalist, had recently signed a Treaty of Collaboration with the Minister of Israel to learn best practices for developing the youth program.

A delightful, festive dinner with the young leaders of the Jewish community concluded our third day. Many mentioned that their personal Jewish journeys began at the camp in Cristian. During the night’s conversations, we reminded ourselves that we were eating dinner thousands of miles from home with new friends who had been raised in Eastern Europe and yet, it all felt so familiar. Having met so many leaders, Robin Mancoll remarked, “It’s really great to see that the Romanian Jewish community has put so much effort into growing its future leaders. Leadership training is so important. Tidewater has done the same for us.”

Splurging with “Papagosh,” a dessert of donuts and cream, we knew we had found just “the right amount of sweetness.”

Through the mountains of Transylvania the next day, we stopped to eat fresh berries, sold by the Roma Gypsies, and tour the grounds of the Peles Castle and “Dracula’s” home. In the late afternoon, we arrived at Camp Be’YaHad, just in time to see the challah dough being shaped into loaves before baking. It was “Mahane Mishpachot II ,” family camp week and the kids were responsible for making the challah for Shabbat. Before lighting the candles, we sat in a huge circle outside, speaking to some of the parents. A previous camper was now the week’s organizer. And Sandler recognized a young mother holding her infant who she remembered as a camper years ago during a prior visit. After listening to a short concert by members of the Synagogue’s choir from Brasov, we entered the dining hall for our Shabbat meal, Hebrew songfest and beauty parlor experience. Cardon got her hair braided by some of the young girls.

Saturday morning services at the synagogue in Brasov, ended in wonder and delight for Carin Simon. “No matter where I go in the world, walking into a synagogue is like being at home,” she said.

Joining us for lunch in the synagogue’s multipurpose room was a group of congregants. Among them, a 40-year-old who told us his story. He started by saying, “I grew up Romanian, married a non-Jewish woman and we had several children. Several months after my father passed away (my mother was also deceased), I was having a conversation with my father-in-law who suggested that I might look through my father’s belongings. He had grown up with my father and thought that I might find it interesting. Intrigued by his comments, I hunted through my parents’ belongings in my aunts’ home and found nothing unusual until I came across a small box of my grandfather’s. Opening it, I discovered right on top, an official government certificate that bore my grandparents’ Hebrew names and their nationality, “Israelite.” I was shocked because I had never been told that I was Jewish. That was three years ago. Since that time, I have attended Shabbat services regularly. My wife and I have agreed to raise our children as Jews.” And he concluded, “My life now makes sense. I could never understand some of the things my grandfather would say. I was always drawn to the Jewish people.”

We heard so many stories while we travelled, and each one confirmed once again that the Jewish journey is extraordinary. As Zoya Shvartzman said, “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the experience is worth 1 billion.” Often times, as donors, we struggle with the concept of giving to the invisible. We feel like we are giving to a bottomless well. And yet, the seven of us saw, with our own eyes that the invisible is not invisible at all. It is very real to those who live in Romania. The series of 14 week-long camps has become the lifeline for those who come year after year to explore their heritage; it is the starting point for many Christians who discover that their grandparents were once Jewish, and it is a place to “feel” the intimate connection with the Jewish people.

The “vision” of a Jewish community in Romania has been replaced by a thriving JCC, a nursing home that brings joy and comfort to the elderly, synagogues that provide services, choirs and programming AND camps. From our JDC hosts who give unselfishly of their lives, to the passionate guides that we met along the way, to the Jewish Romanian leadership, to the young children encouraged by their parents to discover their heritage, to the Tidewater women on this journey, and to the donors and recipients all around the world, it is the magic of all of us side by side and one by one that collectively shape our future.

“The Jews in Romania are running through the doors to be a part of the Jewish community,” reports Annie Sandler. And, that is evidence that dreams can come true.