By Toby Axelrod
[Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile 10 Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.]
Growing up in Romania, Dalia Golda was the only Jewish kid in school. She was happy to share: “I always brought my matzo to class, and said openly who I am and why I am doing things the way I do.”
Today, Golda, 38, is the Early Childhood Director of a Jewish kindergarten she founded in her home city: Gradinita Ganeden – Garden of Eden. She continues to transmit the joy in Jewish life that she learned from her parents and grandparents, who kept tradition alive past the Holocaust and through Romania’s communist regime, where religious practice was taboo.
As her maternal grandfather told her: “We went through all those horrible experiences to make sure you can be proud about your religion, and never hide it.”
Golda was born in the city of Suceava. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays together and kept kosher as much as possible. Today, Golda is “traditional: We keep the spirit, because I think it is more important to talk to your family on Shabbat than to stick to the rules of not talking on the phone!”
“My mom always said that our religion is about peoplehood and human values,” she adds: “Not only for us Jews but for the whole world. That is what made me who I am today, and I am still working on it.”
As with many young Jews in Europe today, for Golda it was a Jewish summer camp that helped redefine a sense of peoplehood. Before attending the Szarvas international Jewish camp in Hungary, a program of JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, when she was 11, Golda only knew about 20 other Jews. At her bat mitzvah a year later, there were only six other Jewish kids.
At camp, “being with kids the same age and background as us had a huge impact,” says Golda, whose younger sister later joined her at a Romanian Jewish camp. Golda eventually became a counselor, and then a unit head. “I got stuck,” she says proudly.
In 2005, after studying computer science in Bucharest, Golda became director of Bucharest’s new Jewish community center. She realized that families lacked “a Jewish perspective and activities on a daily basis. I said, ‘Let’s have a Jewish kindergarten that is like a year-long camp.’ And that was where it started.”
She founded the Garden of Eden kindergarten in the fall of 2009. She wanted her school to reflect the JCC experience – to be for families with a variety of Jewish identities; a place where children can learn about Jewish customs and laws; a place that nurtures a love of Judaism and of Israel. Her first teachers were former Jewish camp counselors.
“We had three kids and ten staff,” she laughs. “And now we have 50 kids,” including about 25% non-Jewish participants. An after-school program was added, which draws public school pupils. Garden of Eden also has specialists in speech therapy and music, and welcomes children with special needs: “It is something everybody can learn from and it is good for all of us.”
The school is her own project financially, but is “totally linked to the daily life of the community,” says Golda, who hopes the Bucharest Jewish community will eventually take it over “so it will survive past me.”
“Everyone used to say ‘We are a surviving community.’ I could not listen to that anymore,” she says: “I wanted it to be a developing and evolving community. We are here to stay.”
Today, her school has support from the Rockville, Maryland-based charity, SOS International: Bridging Jewish Communities, which links Jewish schools in North America with European Jewish partners.
For sure it is easier to be Jewish in the US or Israel, notes Golda. But “we have a history and we feel it is important for us to stay.”
It is also important for the community to embrace its youth. “My generation wasn’t able to be Jewish in a community… and we were really longing to be a part of a Jewish community on a public level”.
“The younger generation now has this [community] – and they don’t understand that it could disappear” if “they don’t invest and actually commit to it.”
For its part, the community leadership needs to professionalize if they want younger people to stay involved. Most Jewish communities here “belong to people who are over 70 years old, and they are called young!” jokes Golda, who is inspired by the younger professionals she has met through Yesod.
“It gives me a lot of hope… We are pushing our communities to look at us in a different way. And it is not just one crazy person, not just you alone in your country, but [people] all over Europe!”