President of Bucharest Jewish Community, Visits Louisville, Tells of Successes, Challenges of Building Jewish Life in Romania

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

Often, when we think about Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, we envisage small communities decimated during the Holocaust and populated by an aging group of survivors who need assistance if they are to live out their days in dignity. When we think of their children, we assume they were assimilated into the general population during 50 years of communist rule and are lost to the Jewish community.

While there are some communities where that is an accurate picture, that is certainly not the case everywhere, and last month, Erwin Simsensohn (pronounces SHIM-shen-son), who stopped in Louisville for a few days during a whirlwind tour of four U.S. cities, painted a very different picture of his community.

Simsensohn, an energetic 30-year old, is president of the Bucharest Jewish community and is committed to ensuring his community’s vibrancy and strength as he looks toward the future in Romania.

He was here with a U.S. Department of State International Visitors Leadership Program focusing on civic engagement for non-governmental organization leaders and best practices in community development and engagement. The program’s 14 participants were selected for a pool of candidates nominated by U.S. Embassies around the world.

The group visited New Orleans, Louisville, Portland and Washington, D.C. While the program had a specific agenda, Simsensohn took advantage of the opportunity to connect with the Jewish community in each city to spread the word about the Jewish community of Bucharest.

In Louisville, he was put in contact with Mayor Jerry Abramson who connected Simsensohn with Jewish Community of Louisville President and CEO Stu Silberman, who arranged many meetings for the visitor. He was very appreciative of the help.

Simsensohn began the story of the Romanian Jewish community by noting that before World War II, Romania had the second largest Jewish community in Europe. Half of the community perished during the Holocaust at the hands of Hungarian and Romanian Fascists and during pograms, the largest of which occurred in 1941.

After the war, 50 years of communist rule almost destroyed the remnant of the Jewish community. Most of the survivors, Simsensohn explained, “managed to flee to Israel.” Some made it to the United States.

For many years the Romanian Jewish community was totally isolated. In 1967, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) “started working in Romania again,” he said. With money from the American Jewish community, they created “an amazing welfare system for Holocaust survivors.  They received food, money for heat, and clothing. They saved a lot of lives.”

Some of the money from American Jews was used to bribe communist party officials to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel, Simsensohn stated. The per capita price during the 1970’s and 1980’s was determined by the individual’s skills. “Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated from Romania because American Jews sent money.

With the fall of communism in 1989, he explained, young people continued to emigrate to Israel, but their motivation was economic rather than ideological.

“In the beginning of the 1990’s,” he continued, “nobody believed in 25 years there would still be a Jewish community in Romania.” The community had dwindled to close to 10,000, “and was decreasing very rapidly because the old people were passing away and the young people were fleeing the country.” The Jewish community was seen as “very old fashioned and as a welfare institution where Jews in need came.”

In 1996, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania took a major step to turn the tide. They created the Pedagogical Center and Youth Department and started to create youth programs.

Jewish life in Romania is not organized the same was as it is in the U.S. Simsensohn explained. In the country’s 38 Jewish communities, there is one institution in town that runs all of Jewish life – from welfare to the synagogues – and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania is the umbrella organization for all of them.

Different federations in the United States began to send missions to Romania. “They saw our programs, the welfare for the elderly and how we struggled to get young people involved,” he said. Communities like Nashville, Kansas City and Tidewater decided to help.

“They did an amazing job and created very successful outreach programs,” Simsensohn explained. “Not only are we 20 years past our predicted death, we now have a very vibrant community.”

Simsensohn himself was a beneficiary. “I was involved all my life in Jewish programs – as a teenager in high school and as a student in college.” In 1999, he was the first Eastern European elected to serve on the Board of the European Union of Jewish Students.

In 2005, at age 26, he was elected to the Executive Board of the Federation in Romania. At the time, “no body under 50” ran, he explained. “It was a pretty amazing thing and a huge step for our community.” In 2009, he was elected president of the Bucharest Jewish community. More than 60 percent of his constituency is over age 65.

Simsensohn assembled a young team to work with him, including some former employees and new staff. Together, they are creating a new image for the community as they address a number of issues.

“We have a secular community,” he explained, “but an Orthordox status quo. The synaogue is Orthodox, but people are not observant.” This was complicated during the communist period when there were a lot of mixed marriages.

Today, he said, “a lot of young people don’t have a Jewish mother, but they were raised in the Jewish community and we invested money in them.” Now the community is facing a major problem. “We cannot provide them with basic aspects of the Jewish lifecycle.” These individuals face issues with bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and conversion.

Simsensohn believes the solution is for the community to embrace a Modern Orthodox or Conservative stream “for easier conversions in our community.”

During his time in America, Simsensohn reached out to Jewish communities wherever he went “to create relationships with American Jews” who will continue to help the Romanian Jewish community to move forward by providing the financial support for programs for children and teens and other community needs.

He has big plans for the future. He wants transliterated prayerbooks for the synagogue. He wants to open an online Jewish radio station to reach out to young people and to continue cultural programs like an Israeli folk dancing festival which drew 120 participants from nine countries last year. At the same time camps need support, cemeteries need to be maintained and safeguarded and welfare services must continue.

Simsensohn thanked all the members of the Louisville Jewish community who welcomed him, including Stu Silberman, Ralph Green, Ed Weinberg, Ben Vaughan, Rabbi Robert Slosbert and Sam Gordon. He also expressed the hope that Louisville will plan a mission to Eastern Europe including Romania.

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