Next Year in Kishinev, Baby

A Limmud FSU festival celebrating Jewish identity came to Kishinev. They came; they participated, they were hooked. Jews from the once glorious but now pitifully thin Moldovan community; enthusiastic Limmud groupies from other parts of the former Soviet Union, and from Israel; the philanthropist Matthew Bronfman whose family roots are in Moldova, the Moldovan Prime-Minister, and this reporter. And the Messiah – almost.

by Zvika Klein
Makor Rishon, Kishinev

A small plane, seven passengers, 55 minutes from Bucharest to Chisenau – Kishinev. What a difference! Even a conventional sign, “Welcome to Chisenau – Capital of Moldova” is not there. After 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union, the State of Moldova is still in its infancy. Last Sunday an event organized by Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), was thronged by 400 young Russian-speaking participants from the local community and surrounding areas. Limmud is open and egalitarian: Judaism just like a Limmud event in Kfar Blum as the organizers like to describe it.

For most Israelis, Kishinev is, above everything else, the “City of Slaughter,” the epic poem written by Haim Nachman Bialik in the wake of the pogroms in that city; first in the spring of 1903, followed by another one a year and a half later. The pogroms led in turn to a massive growth in emigration from Moldova in particular and from Czarist Russia in general, and the rise of Jewish self-defense organizations in Russia. The first pogrom also convinced Theodor Herzl to present the Uganda Plan. Nevertheless and despite everything, Moldova today is home to between 12,000 and 15,000 Jews, most of whom, however, play no role in the life of the local Jewish community.

At its peak, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Moldova, then Belorussia, most of them in the area of Kishinev. There were 70 synagogues then, but the movement throughout Europe for the restoration and repair of the old buildings has passed over Moldova. Only one synagogue in the whole country has been restored and this, the sole place of prayer, belongs to Habad. In the country as a whole there is barely enough money to feed the citizens and restoration of a synagogue is at the bottom of the list of priorities. Whoever I spoke to reminded me that Moldova, with its 3.5 million citizens, is the poorest country in Europe. The average income per citizen is only slightly more than 3,000 dollars per annum.

The Habad rabbi, Zalman Abelsky is referred to as the “Chief Rabbi.” At the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service there were no more than 30 congregants, of them a third were habadniks, a third newly-observant or converts, and a third, Israeli students. It is easy to identify the latter by their knitted black kippot. Kishinev is a power-house in the field of medical studies for foreign students including many Israelis. “There are nearly 200 Israeli students here” one of them told me, “but there are many more if you include Arab students.” Statistics from Jewish organizations show that more than 900 Israeli citizens study medicine in various Moldovan campuses, most of them Arabs.

Following a hearty Sabbath eve dinner at the home of Rabbi Zalman and his wife, I walked to the hotel. Hundreds of local football fans passed me on their way home after having watched the opening matches of the European Cup shown on giant screens in the city center. In the hotel, I met the Israeli members of the Limmud FSU delegation including its founder, Chaim Chesler, who established the organization after retiring from a series of senior positions in the Jewish Agency.

Unlike many other Jewish organizations, Limmud is based on intensive field work. The underlying concept is to promote Jewish learning events organized in their entirety by local volunteers from the Jewish community. “Each year, we open up a new venue,” explained Chesler, “We provide back-up, logistics and support to the local organizers. In subsequent years, our role becomes less and less as the communities take up the reins in their own hands. From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, tens of organizations arrived intent on bolstering Jewish identity as well as aliya to Israel. However, the materials they bring with them do not always meet the needs of the local Jewish communities. After several years of work in the field, I realized that these Jews should construct their own programs according to their own concepts and in accordance with their needs as they see them, without outside interference. Russian-speaking Jews have their own subtle understanding of such luminaries as Shalom Aleichem and Shai Agnon and they know and appreciate them. They also place an emphasis on scientific subjects and bearing all this in mind, we help them to construct their own study program. In our whole organization, there are only four salaried individuals and the Limmud FSU budget is modest, certainly in comparison to its constantly increasing influence on Jewish learning. There are thousands of young people who have had a rare opportunity to study Jewish subjects in the widest sense. It is easy to believe that if these programs were to be arranged by one of the traditional organizations in the Jewish world, the budgets needed would be many times larger.”

Chesler founded Limmud FSU seven years ago with the help and support of the Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist, Matthew Bronfman. Matthew is the son of Edgar Bronfman, past president of the World Jewish Congress. Matthew Bronfman is a heavy investor in Israel and is principal shareholder in the Supersol supermarket chain, Bank Discount and IKEA. Even though Moldova had to wait seven years for its first Limmud FSU event, it was a high priority ever since Chesler discovered that the Bronfman family had its origins in that country. Matthew’s grandfather, Samuel Bronfman, left the small Jewish shtetl of Ataki for Canada and made a fortune in the liqueur industry. Bronfman was thrilled by the Moldova idea but the first Limmud FSU events were held in Moscow rather than the more remote Kishinev. In the same way that you would not inaugurate the first major branch of a chain in Kfar Saba, was Chesler’s example.

This time, Chesler had prepared a surprise for his friend Matthew Bronfman and organized an extensive roots trip to the land of his forefathers in the course of which he was given honorary citizenship of Ataki. The visit of the Jewish millionaire led to a great deal of interest in the small and impoverished country and the Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, invited him to meeting in his office. A visit of a leading Western capitalist is a rare event in Moldova which is struggling for economic growth and to attract investments and join the European Union. For his part, Bronfman took the opportunity to invite the Prime Minister to speak at the opening session of Limmud. The local community was skeptical – since when does the Prime Minister attend a local event for 400 participants? “Nevertheless, I managed to persuade him to come to our event on Sunday morning,” Bronfman told me proudly even though Filat had only 24 hours warning. What won’t you do to meet a millionaire?

Kishinev is not an attractive city. The city center is relatively well looked after but there is nothing special about it. When you leave the main streets, the real Kishinev becomes apparent. Crumbling buildings, shabby shops selling old fashioned goods, and one predominant color – gray. On Shabbat, the Limmud team made a tour of Kishinev’s Jewish past, erstwhile synagogues, yeshivot and community buildings. But all these buildings have either been destroyed or become non-Jewish buildings. From Habad Lubavich Street where the Habad synagogue is located we reached Chirlson Street, named after a chief rabbi of Kishinev and a member of the Romanian parliament who was killed in the German bombardment of the city during the Second World War. In the middle of the street is a large decaying building – remnant of the great Chirlson Yeshiva. The building partially collapsed during an earthquake in the 1970s and has remained untouched ever since. I asked our guide why nothing has been done to renovate the historic building. He replied, “Because the government of Moldova has not contributed one leu (the local currency) to the costs involved.” Later on, one of the two leaders of the local Jewish community Alexandr Pinchevsky said that an additional problem is that the state is not prepared to return to the Jewish community any of the buildings that were expropriated over the years. The two leaders are wealthy businessmen who are the sole financers of the community’s activities. “We are fully aware of the problematic situation,” Pinchevsky says. “We hope very much that someone else will replace us in a few years time; some other community members who will understand that they need to help support communal activities.”

The long-awaited Limmud event began on Sunday at nine o’clock in the morning and went on until midnight, according to a strict Soviet-like schedule with hundreds of local participants and some enthusiastic Limmud groupies from Russia and Ukraine. The program distributed to the participants gave a list of the various presentations – five simultaneous lectures and workshops each hour. Among the subjects were “20 Years of Israel – Moldova Relations,” “The Influence of Judaism on Ukrainian Music,” “Jews and Fashion,” a question and answer session with Matthew Bronfman on Jews and the Economy, “the Arab-Israel Conflict,” Kashrut and Kosher Wine,” “Can a Jew become a Non-Jew,” and more.

The subject of the lecture by Rabbi Abelsky was the Mashiach (Messiah.) The rabbi tells me, “I spoke about the Mashiach who is alive and with us. People haves seen him in body and soul in recent years.” How did the Moldovan Jews – most of whom do not consider themselves religious, react to a messianic Habad discourse? Alexandra Aharonov, aged 29, said she had enjoyed it. “Everything he said interested me irrespective of the actual subject even if I don’t agree with it.”

During the course of the day I spoke with several of the local participants and the organizers to try and understand how the local community functions, what are the central issues in their lives and above all, what do they lack. From my point of view, as one who has visited many Jewish communities throughout the world, at first Moldova seemed to be a desert Jewishly, but that is not how the locals see it. Not one of the people I questioned was prepared to say what they lack from a Jewish aspect. Was it just because of typical Russian reserve?

I actually began to receive some answers to the question during a lavish lunch laid on by the wealthy members of the community for the visiting delegation, especially Matthew Bronfman, in a smart restaurant in the city. Outside the restaurant were parked luxury cars and sparkling SUVs with their chauffeurs standing beside them trying to cool off in the heat. Inside were the oligarchs of the community dressed in the ultimate in designer suits. It soon became obvious that behind the meal was an agenda. The translator introduced a local architect who presented plans for the restoration of the Chirlson Yeshiva. The architect explained that the community had raised 660,000 dollars from the required budget of four million. The connection between that fact and the listeners needed no explanation. The architect explained that the Yeshiva would become the community center, with a large synagogue, a yeshiva, mikveh and other religious services.

Who, exactly, would fill up the spaces of the large edifice? I asked myself wonderingly as I recalled the sparse number of people at the Sabbath evening prayers. The youngsters who in droves are marrying non-Jews? The words of the head of the community suggested an answer. “The existing synagogue is old and is not suited to our needs. It is not the face that we want our community to show. We are lagging behind all the other communities of the former Soviet Union.” A businessman, Anatoly Leibowitz, who lived in Israel for 20 years and then returned to Moldova who was seated opposite me, said, “Rabbi Zalman thinks the community is here to serve him and not him the community. Last year, Rabbi Zalman was gracious enough to attend our Israel Day of Independence celebrations which were attended by 600 people, but up until then he had never attended any of our community events. We are looking for an aggressive and charismatic rabbi who will be able to unite everyone around him even if most of us are not religious. It is important that we have such a figure.” In Kishinev, too, like all Jewish communities the world over, there are internal politics which keeps the community busy on a daily basis.

The director of the Euro-Asian department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Yaacov Livne, gave several talks on Israel-Moldova relations. He explained that the relationship is good basically because of the natural closeness. A quarter of a million ex-Moldavians live in Israel, including the Foreign Minister Avigdor (Yvet) Leiberman. Moldova’s economic situation is not good, Livne explains, but it has a good chance to survive the economic crisis and to develop. In Ukraine, the neighbor to the East, the annual average income is 7,500 dollars – double that of Moldova. There is hope that, unlike other countries where there is a deep economic crisis, such as Greece, because Moldovans are industrious workers, most of them in agriculture who till the fertile Bessarabian soil. Moldovan agriculture is highly praised especially with regard to its wine. Recently a line of kosher wines was produced under local rabbinical supervision. Moldova is not a third-world country, states Livne. Moldovans are hard-working, educated, and imbued with a strong desire to succeed. It is important to bear in mind that the nation only came into existence 20 years ago.

Following the strengthening of relations two years ago, Israel invested substantial efforts in aid and advice to Moldova, especially in agriculture and health. Many Moldovans come to Israel for health reasons and as the standard of living increases, more will come. Livne adds that a major project is currently underway: inauguration of regular flights between Kishinev and Tel Aviv. The flight is only two hours and will enable the import of Moldovan building workers. An agreement to this effect will be signed shortly by the two ministries of foreign affairs.

The talk by Matthew Bronfman was attended by almost half of all the participants and it was evident that the interest Bronfman showed about Moldova was warmly appreciated by the audience. They hung on his every word and bombarded him with questions both of a professional and a personal nature. The philanthropist, whose family origins were in a remote shtetl and become a successful businessman, told his story to an enthralled audience. One of the participants asked him how Moldova is regarded in the USA. “No one would be able even to find it on a map,” was Bronfman’s response. “It is better known in Israel because so many people from Moldova have moved there.”

Bronfman spoke about the Jewish education he is imparting to his children. He appealed to the audience to ensure that their children get a Jewish grounding in the same way as are his, so they can relate to their heritage. “Everyone must find his or her own special way to Judaism, for each of us has a Jewish soul. The aim of today’s Limmud event is to help each person to discover his own personal Jewish identity by free choice, not by compulsion.”

During the course of the weekend, Bronfman was revealed as a believer and Torah and Mitzva observant Jew and as a dedicated Zionist. During the whole of Limmud he reiterated his very American mantra – Baruch Hashem Baby, as he tried to master more and more words in Hebrew. In the closing event which was dedicated to the philanthropic heritage of the extended Bronfman family a film was screened which traced the roots trip which Matthew had taken prior to Limmud. He stood on the platform deeply moved and attempted to sum up the latest Limmud FSU event. “I am in shock. I need some time to digest the trip and the warm welcome I have received from all of you.” The MC tried to rescue him from the shock and posed a question, “Matthew, next year in Kishinev? Brofman thought a moment and responded, “Leshana Haba beKishinev, Baby.”

This article originally appeared in Makor Rishon (in Hebrew); translation by Asher Weill.

photo courtesy Limmud FSU