Reviewing: Jewish Communal Service in Romania and Poland

Jewish Communal Service in Romania and Poland, 1986-1995; Dr. Zvi Feine; Gefen Publishing House, 2019.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Zvi Feine has presented us with a rare gift: the opportunity to understand international Jewish philanthropy from several different perspectives. First and foremost, Jewish Communal Service in Romania and Poland presents a unique view of two Jewish communities in former communist countries that had to endure both the Holocaust and repressive totalitarian governments. We also learn about the different ways these communities approached the rebuilding process after the downfall of the communist regimes.

Yet this is really only part of the story, because Dr. Feine also gives us an understanding of how the gears of international Jewish philanthropy turned under the communist regime and how they continued to function after democratic governments were established in these countries. What have made the gears turn are the knowledge, experience, and talents of seasoned Jewish communal professionals working within the strong institutional framework provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The lessons we learn from decades of JDC operations are valuable for students aspiring to work in the world of international Jewish philanthropy, professionals already in the field, volunteer leaders who serve on boards and committees of international voluntary organizations, and, last but not least, the staff members of these organizations who work both in offices based in their home countries and on site delivering services to Jewish communities and individuals in need.

After the Nazi horrors and the ravages of war, the Jewish communities in Romania were decimated: where there had been thousands of Jews before the Holocaust, the populations of the postwar communities numbered in the low hundredths and even in dozens. For decades after the war, Rabbi Moshe Rosen “ruled” over the Romanian Jewish community, not only protecting it but also enforcing his own views on what could and could not be accomplished to sustain it, failing to appreciate what JDC could do to strengthen even those small communities far from the JDC Bucharest office. Dr. Feine not only records what took place when he was the JDC country director in Romania, from 1988 to 2006, but also provides insights into how he masterfully worked with Rabbi Rosen and the communist government to ensure that the Jewish community would receive the services and financial support needed to sustain itself.

In applying his knowledge and skills, together with the support of the JDC, he was able to have an impact not only during Rabbi Rosen’s lifetime but also once the mantle of leadership was passed and the communist regime ended. Dr. Feine not only ensured that people received basic food and medical assistance but also developed innovative programs in Jewish education and leadership development that strengthened the community looking to the future. He not only had an impact on the volunteer leadership in Romania but was also able to involve JDC professional and volunteer leadership and Jewish foundations that were interested in supporting these efforts.

In Poland about 90 percent of the Jewish community had been deported and put to death during the Holocaust, leaving a very small remnant after the war. Because of the hostile political situation, JDC had to maneuver carefully to maintain its presence in Poland and was banned several times from functioning in the country both before, during, and after World War II. In 1981 it was able to reestablish its presence and begin collaborating with the local Jewish communities. There was no central rabbinic figure as in Romania, and so Dr. Feine had fewer constraints in developing Jewish education, leadership programs, and summer camps. He was also able to respond quickly to the community’s nutritional and medical needs.

The many professional and personal vignettes add to the richness of the book. Dr. Feine enables readers to feel as if they were accompanying him at home visits, staff meetings, and discussions with government officials. These vignettes flesh out the analysis of the complicated dynamics in international Jewish philanthropy and show how a skillful, knowledgeable, and understanding professional can accomplish so much and have an impact on people in need and communities searching for ways to maintain and sustain themselves.

If the book has any fault, it is in its length. Much of what is written perhaps could have been said in far fewer words, and readers have to be committed to plow through some of the sections. However, doing is so is worth it because this is one of the few books that help readers understand the complicated situation of working in a foreign country representing an American-based philanthropy and dealing with a variety of institutions, personalities, and issues.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to