Romania -- Jewish heritage

A disused synagogue in Radauti. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My trip to Romania the first week of September coincided with the annual European Day of Jewish Culture -- and I was able to take place in Culture Day events both in Radauti, Romania and in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) Ukraine. Both events were presentations of the new book by the Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler on Jewish cemeteries in Bucovina -- both sides of the border.

Here is video of my talk in Radauti -- I discuss my own connection to the region but also note the importance of recognizing Jewish heritage and Jewish history, culture and heritage as part of national and local history culture and heritage in general. It's a theme that I have written about frequently and have tried to stress over the years.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania has issued a statement addressing criticism from some Haredi (strictly orthodox) that they have failed to adequately care for the synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites in their care. FedRom, according to its statement, owns 88 synagogues and 821 Jewish cemeteries. Of these, 34 synagogues and 14 cemeteries are classed as national monuments and thus are acknowledged as part and parcel of the Romanian National Patrimony." Some 638 cemeteries exist in places where no Jews have lived for many years.

The statement outlines the issues and problems. Many of these -- including lack of resources and lack of personnel to take care of numerous sites, and difficulty in finding uses for synagogue buildings in towns were not Jews live -- are common across the region. They were addressed at the Jewish heritage seminar in Bratislava in March, which Romania representatives also attended and which released a statement including recommended good practices and principles in the care and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites.

Here is the text of the Romanian statement:

Lately, some media in Romania and abroad, expressed critical opinions (sometimes, even containing accusations) towards the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM), regarding the status of the Jewish Sacred Assets in Romania.

Regarding this complex and difficult issue, the leadership of the Federation would like to inform the public opinion about the following:

1.According to the Romanian legislation (Law no. 598 / 2002), the synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and ritual baths (mikvehs) are the rightful property of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania. These sacred assets were created with the financial resources of the Jewish population from Romania, who lived for centuries in this area. As such, any private claim is groundless. We would like to emphasize that even the totalitarian regimes of the past recognized this property right of the Jewish communities upon their sacred assets.

2.Currently, according to the FEDROM, we own and take care of 88 synagogues and 821 Jewish cemeteries (13 of which were identified during the last 3 years). From the total number of synagogues, many are located in areas were Jews have not been living anymore for decades. Similarly, 638 cemeteries are located in areas where Jews have not been living for a long time. The majority of the existing synagogues are heavily affected by physical degradation. A number of 34 synagogues and 14 cemeteries are legally classified as historical monuments, thus being acknowledged as part and parcel of the Romanian National Patrimony.

3.The current condition of the cemeteries cannot make us happy, even though, due to all the efforts of FEDROM and of the communities, 119 cemeteries are well-kept and in a good condition, while another 224 are in an acceptable condition. The major issues we face, regarding the cemeteries, are:

» Repairing and replacing fences, including after deterioration and theft;

» Keeping the existing vegetation within normal parameters (weeds, small trees, etc.) This permanently involves land clearing, transporting the cut vegetation out of the area, the use of herbicides and cutting branches – leading to a total expense of approximately 2,432,000 lei (608,000 €) every year;

» The need to repair approximately 73,000 monuments which are broken, tipped over, destroyed by vandals and natural phenomena;

» Guarding the cemeteries, in compliance with the law.

4.The activity of preserving the Jewish Religious Assets requires important financial resources, greatly surpassing the actual means of the Jewish communities of Romania. A few numbers are testifying to this fact:

» In 2007, the Romanian Government allotted 400,000 lei from their budget, for a special program of preservation of the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Romania. Between 2005 and 2009, restoration works at the synagogues in Orastie, Piatra Neamt and Iasi (currently in progress) have been carried out, with financing from the Ministry of Culture and Religion.

» Important repair and restoration works for the Choral Temple in Bucharest are undergoing, with a substantial financial contribution of the Bucharest City Hall for the renovation of the fa├žade.

» FEDROM itself has allotted and spent, between 2006 and 2008, over 3,300,000 lei (over 1.1 million dollars), for the preservation of the Jewish Sacred Assets, more specifically for the benefit of 131 synagogues and 145 cemeteries. Due to the current financial crisis, the work volume and resources have dramatically decreased in 2009, a few works already in progress being continued at the Choral Temple in Bucharest, the „Templul Meseriasilor” in Galati and the „Great Synagogue” in Oradea.

The financial resources of FEDROM are, by enlarge, made up of the amounts received from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (USA), the „Caritatea” Foundation and some contribution made by Romanian born Jews.

Unfortunately, due to the current global financial crisis, we received this year less and less contributions from the above mentioned sources, which has a negative impact on our efforts to preserve the Jewish Sacred Assets. Nonetheless, this in by no means due to neglect on behalf of FEDROM and the communities.

5.It is unjust and immoral to expect – in such an absolute way – from the small number of Jews currently living in Romania, without an even remotely encouraging socio-demographic structure, to guard and ensure an impeccable look and functioning of the Jewish Sacred Assets.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of FEDROM


Aurel Vainer, Ph.D.