I’ve been here for the past seven years, I walk around with my beard and peyos, and I’ve never even heard so much as a catcall,” says Rabbi Rafael Shaffer, the chief rabbi of Romania. “In fact, I’m treated with a great deal of respect.”
It was quite a move for the Romanian-born rav, who went from the Kollel Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak back to his native land to head a kehillah that is still extremely vibrant, even though it numbers only about 4-5,000 people. In its heyday, Romania was home to as many as 880,000 Jews. Rabbi Shaffer does not consider his role to be “closing the lights” on Romanian Jewry; instead he has assumed responsibility for “keeping the flame alive.”
On an official visit as a guest of the Romanian government to explore increasing production and exports of kosher food to Israel, the United States and other Jewish communities, I learned a great deal about Romania in the post-Ceausescu era. It is almost impossible to have any discussion about the country without bringing up the Ceausescu period.
For many of the elderly Jews who still live here, the fall of Communism in 1990 ended a period of hardship that began with Romanian collusion with the Nazis in the early 1940s. Only now is there an appreciation for the role played by Rabbi Moshe Rosen, chief rabbi under Nicolae Ceausescu, in preserving the country’s Jewish past, ensuring that Jews were able to practice their religion, and even facilitating large-scale emigration to Israel. “He is the unsung hero of Romanian Jews,” a young Romanian Jew told me.
For Jews who lived under the repressive Communist regime, the hardships were intolerable. There are stories of long lines to get basic staples such as milk and poultry. Many people fell victim to the nationalization of their businesses. But the restrictions on religion that existed in the former Soviet Union were not as severe here.
You can still see the brutality of the regime in some parts of Bucharest, where decaying matchbox apartment houses still fill many streets. It reminded me of similar blocks I’d seen in St. Petersburg and Kiev. At the other extreme is the 1,100-room palace in Bucharest that Ceausescu built in his desire to put up the largest building in the world, even larger than the Pentagon.
It is perhaps because of Rabbi Rosen that there are still 86 synagogues in Romania, including those in Transylvania and Moldova, 30 of which are still functioning. Thanks to an extremely friendly government, one of the largest shuls in Bucharest, the Choral Synagogue, was restored, and nearly 30 others are slated for renovation, according to Aurel Vainer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM). Mr. Vainer, an extremely sharp and active octogenarian, is in no way giving up on a Jewish future in Romania, despite the dwindling numbers.
“We are encouraging young Jews to settle here,” he says, rattling off a long list of services and projects that FEDROM sponsors. In addition to caring for the shuls and some 300 cemeteries, the agency has a publishing house, a medical program for the Jewish community, services for Holocaust survivors, two kosher nursing homes and several Jewish community centers. Mr. Vainer spoke warmly about the small Jewish school that is supported by the Lauder Foundation. On this warm June morning, the building is teeming with many Jews taking advantage of these programs. But he bows his head in obvious frustration when I ask about the problem of intermarriage, which is rampant in the country.
Another Jewish organization Mr. Vainer credits with supporting the community is the Joint Distribution Committee. I noticed that the paroches in the Choral Synagogue honors the 100-year relationship between the JDC and the Jewish community of Romania, which began in 1914. He also lauds the current chief rabbi and his rapidly expanding kosher supervision program around the country. Rabbi Shaffer tells me that he certifies several large food plants, the kitchens associated with FEDROM, and even events at some of the large hotels in Bucharest. He also assures me that there is periodic shechitah for the community.
Rabbi Shaffer is the rav of the magnificent Choral Synagogue, but the weekday minyanim I attended were held in a small room in FEDROM’s nearby modern building. Security is tight, and every visitor is closely screened by the synagogue’s private security force. Rabbi Shaffer says that security is also closely monitored by the Romanian national police, and in fact, plainclothesmen are posted in the vicinity. In recent years, this has become the norm in many European cities, including Berlin, Munich and Vienna.
I am informed that there are daily minyanim for Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv. On the days I was there, only about 13 men, most of them elderly, were in attendance, along with several women behind the mechitzah. Rabbi Shaffer is the shaliach tzibbur. On an average Shabbos there are about 60 mispallelim, among them tourists and businessmen. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, almost all three tiers of seats—numbering in the hundreds—are filled. Unlike in other Nazi-occupied countries, many shuls and sifrei Torah in Romania survived. Rabbi Shaffer has relocated many of the Torahs from Bucharest to other functioning synagogues around the country.