By Liam Hoare
On the day I visited the Jewish community of Timișoara – Romania’s third city located in the far west of the country, home to around 320,000 people – they were playing host to a group of seniors visiting from Arad, an hour or so north of Timișoara. 65 percent of the Jewish community of Romania is currently over the age of 65; old age care is central to the work of the JDC and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM) there. The community has two full-time residential facilities – one in Arad, the other in the capital, Bucharest.
Romania is home to approximately 8,000 Jews, spread across the country in thirty-eight population centers including more rural locales. Due to the demographic balance of Romanian Jewry, however, it is believed that in one generation’s time, the community will find itself reduced to five hubs: Bucharest, Oradea, Iași, Cluj-Napoca, and Timișoara. This re-arrangement of community life is very much planned for. For one, these five cities each either have a Jewish community center or are in the process of planning for one. Moreover, FEDROM has been encouraged to institute democratic mechanisms and initiate a transition of authority to younger leaders from within the community.
One of these leaders of Luciana Friedmann, who has been President of the Jewish Community of Timișoara (which has 615 registered members, 40 percent of whom are over 65-years-old) since 2010, when she was elected at the age of 32. Shortly before lunchtime on a Thursday in late November, I sat down with her in the offices of the community on Strada Gheorghe Lazăr in order to discuss community life and in her time in office.
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How were you involved in community life in Timișoara before 2010?
I’ve been part of the community since I was very young. I remember when I was little, because I didn’t have a very good voice, I was afraid to come to the choir, but when I was older I came because it wasn’t relevant whether you could actually sing or not. I also celebrated the holidays with the community.
By profession, I am a journalist and I have a PhD in literature. I am still writing for the newspaper of FEDROM in Bucharest, and before that I was writing for many magazines, not only Jewish ones. Being a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet very interesting people, hear very interesting stories. As people will have told you, this is an older community and I met many older personalities who sadly have died in recent years, and that is one of the reasons why it was very important for me to continue their work.
What was the community like before you became President?
Rabbi [Ernest] Neumann was the rabbi of the community for over sixty years, and for a few decades, he was also the president of the community. My generation grew up being his students in Hebrew – on the board, we have six people out of ten members, members of my generation, who remember standing here [in this office] listening to him speak in Hebrew.
I think he had a very good influence on the community. He was a very open person and he was the one who established very good relations with other religions here. He and the leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Timișoara established some inter-religious meetings and he was very respected by everyone in town and also the President of Romania. He was a very special person who left a very important mark on this community.
He died in 2004, and after this, we had another president – he was 87, he was less open – and [in 2010] it was a good time to have a change in the community and to renew the community.
Was it the case, before 2010, that Jewish life in Timișoara was focused mostly around religious life?
No, I wouldn’t say it was about religious activities – there were just less activities in general. We have to underline that, under Rabbi Neumann, we had a choir and Talmud Torah, that he was doing, and we had many programs especially for older people like conferences, inter-religious meetings, so it was a certain Jewish life. But after 2010, people are more involved, I would say. They have more activities for every age group, as well as collaboration with regional and national programs which is very important.
What made you want to run for the presidency?
The truth is that, in the beginning, I did not want to run and I couldn’t imagine that somebody my age could be president of the community. But, I was very involved in activities and people pushed me to try for this and after hearing them I thought that maybe this is a chance to change the programming to have the activities that we want.
What were the ideas you campaigned on?
To establish very good relations between the generations and not create differences between people based upon age. Before me, the president of the community were only men and over the age of eighty, but I had a good deal of support from people from all generations.
To make the community a comfortable place where people want to come, not where they are obliged to come, not only a religious place, not only a formal, framed place. To be a place where they feel at home and have a very real need to come.
To encourage young people and have activities for young people and children. And, to not have any Jew in Timișoara who has a real need that we do not answer in terms of medicine and heating their home, to not have someone in this situation where we ignore it. For this, we have the help of the JDC and the Claims Conference who work out of Bucharest through the Welfare Department, but I think it’s very important to work on this on a local level.
Tell me about the JCC and how it has changed community life?
It was opened in October 2010 and it was the idea of the JDC to organize a JCC. Before I became president of the community, I was working in Timișoara within the framework of a JCC without walls, but, we had a lot of programming organized together with other cities, we had regional seminars – we had many events, but a real JCC only from 2010, and in all this the JDC helped tremendously. Today, we have some sort of programming almost every day.
It has made it a more active community, giving more possibilities to initiatives. People are coming with their own ideas and we try not to say no, even if it sounds very fantastical in the beginning, because out of those ideas we can create something good.
Why is it important to be Jewish?
For me, being Jewish was never something I could choose – it came naturally. I think it is an illusion to think you can run from this identity and choose to not be Jewish, especially now in Europe. I would like to find what’s good in this identity, to adapt to it, and do something to make you proud to be Jewish. If we are Jewish, let’s act like we are proud to be Jewish. It’s easier.
This interview has been edited and condensed.