10 Years Later: Returning to My Old ‘Shtelar’ in Oradea, Romania

Written by Yitz Szyf on . Posted in Features

Those who know me may have heard me joke that I was once the Chief Rabbi of Transylvania (everyone was stunned to hear that Dracula needed a rabbi!). The truth is that it’s not a joke at all. Exactly 10 years ago, as part of a joint program between Yeshiva University (YU) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), I completed my official shimush (internship) for YU’s rabbinical program in Oradea, Romania. At the time, I was not just the Rabbi of Oradea, but the only rabbi in all of Transylvania.

 

Oradea is situated in northwest Romania, just minutes from the Hungarian border. It is part of the huge Romanian region of Transylvania. Yes, Dracula’s house, which I had the privilege to see, is also located in the same region; however, it is more than a six-hour drive from Oradea.

Before World War II, Oradea (also known as Nagyvárad in Hungarian and Groysvardeyn in both German and Yiddish) was an important center of Jewish life. It was home to 30,000 Jews (about a third of the total population of the city) and 27 synagogues. Being only a few hundred miles from Budapest, the fate of Oradea’s Jews was akin to those of Hungary. They lived in relative safety until the Germans invaded toward the very end of the war, and most perished between May and June 1944. As such, many of the shuls remained physically intact. Even today, in Chevra Shas, the main shul still in use, there are thousands of sefarim (Jewish books) from before the war, left almost the way they were in the 1940s; these include many machzorim (holiday prayer books) with prayers for Franz Joseph the Second.

Only about 2,000 of Oradea’s Jews survived the war, and most of the survivors escaped to Israel in the few opportunities that existed under the new communist regime that descended on Romania. A few hundred people remain part of the community today, most of whom are not halachically Jewish. While the official language in Oradea is Romanian, the Jewish community is bilingual (speaking Romanian and Hungarian) and many prefer to speak Hungarian. They are Hungarian Jews in every way, including in the myriad of different goulash (Hungarian stew) options I was served in the community cantina (cafeteria).

When I was the rabbi 10 years ago, the Holocaust survivors were the backbone of the community, and they were the only ones who knew how to daven (recite prayers). Everyone looked up to them for spiritual guidance, while also complaining about how they all wanted to do things the “old” way. I particularly liked the fact that they kept the old minhagim (traditions) of the community, which they remembered from before the war, and how they recited all the beautiful piyutim (liturgical poetry not commonly recited around here) in the holidays and special weeks. But most of them weren’t strictly observant, and just about all of them were intermarried to non-Jews. This was not their fault, they explained to me. They were married to Jewish women and many had families before the war. Their families were killed, and when they returned to Oradea, there were thousands of Jewish men and almost no women. They married non-Jewish women but considered themselves Jewish in every way. Their kids attended the weekly talmud Torah program and participated in all Jewish activities, but they were never counted as part of a minyan.

Although I was probably the only strictly shomer Shabbos person in the town, everything in the shul and the community kitchen was (and remains until today) strictly Orthodox. In fact, the older men even insisted that the women sit upstairs in the rundown and unheated balcony since that was the minhag of the shul before the war (the balcony was probably nicer then, but hasn’t been touched since). After much discussion, I managed to convince them that it was okay to put up a mechitzah (partition) downstairs, and many women agreed to go back to shul.

There were also middle-aged people in the community. Some spoke English, and I had the opportunity to teach them regularly. But the focus of the community 10 years ago was on the “old” and “young” generations. The latter included college students in their twenties and about 15 kids aged three to 10. Just a handful were halachically Jewish. The rest were grandchildren of male Holocaust survivors who could not find Jewish women after the war.

Ten years have passed. I returned to Oradea at the end of March 2017, and was glad to see everything looked the same. Romania has a special charm, and I was happy to see it hadn’t become too “modern” and looked like Western Europe. It was almost as if I had never left. The country still uses the lei (not the euro) and the streets had kept their unique pre-EU character. Oradea itself is an extraordinarily beautiful city, and though its charm has remained, its tourist infrastructure has vastly improved. Many of the old buildings (including the stunning pre-war Neolog Synagogue and the town clock) have been refurbished and opened to visitors.

At first, I felt the same about the community. It felt like I had never left. But then I noticed some key differences, some of which were really sad, while others were incredibly amazing.

I expected the sad news. The old people were in their 80s and 90s when I left in 2007, but it was still so painful to find absolutely none of the Holocaust survivors who regularly attended shul. In just 10 years, the last witnesses who stayed to live their lives in one of the most important pre-war Jewish communities were gone. While many complained about their “old ways” 10 years ago, everyone today said they are missed dearly. They were the backbone of the community, the “elders” who knew how things were once done.

But not all was sad. When I left Oradea 10 years ago, I honestly didn’t believe that there would be a daily minyan a decade later. I was so pleasantly surprised! I believe Oradea is the only community in Transylvania to strive for a daily minyan, and just about the only small, relatively unknown community in Europe to do so. I say “strive” because the truth is, that despite the daily turnout of about 10-15 people, we only had nine people who were halachically Jewish on Friday morning, and even less on Sunday. But the community doesn’t just give up. They gather every morning to daven, and often do get the coveted minyan. If not, they still daven as a group, and just skip the parts that require a minyan.

While most of the youth have left for other places, it is the “middle generation” that now forms the core of the community. By the end of my visit, they were the ones attending minyan (though only a handful could “count”); they were the ones coming to the beautifully renovated Jewish Community Center (JCC); and they were the core group of people at the Friday night oneg (Sabbath celebration)we enjoyed together during my visit. Some of them were more motivated than ever, and their biggest dream is to be Jewish. It was amazing to see how these people, who 10 years ago could not follow the davening at all, were now participating in all parts of the tefillah (prayer) and singing so beautifully.

This is all thanks to one man: Shraya Kav, a middle-aged Israeli who is not a rabbi but an outstanding chazan (cantor) and has been serving as Oradea’s spiritual leader for the past four years. One can see how he genuinely loves the community and all its members, and understands that there is just something special about Oradea.

His dream is to save the community, one conversion at a time. All potential converts are children and grandchildren of Jewish male holocaust survivors who lived traditional Jewish lives after the war. It is not easy, and there are some rabbis who are opposed to his actions. Although many of the young and middle-aged people in the process of conversion are extremely dedicated, it is very difficult to be truly observant in Oradea. Shraya will only work with a proper beit din (rabbinical court), whose conversions will be recognized in Israel. While he has seen some success, the process is very difficult. I cannot comment on the halachic issues involved, but can say that I have been truly inspired by many of these potential converts on a personal level. Their desire to be Jewish, and their love for their Jewish community, has strengthened my own commitment and made me appreciate my own background.

I have traveled a lot, but I must say that there is something special about Oradea, Romania. Let’s hope that the community finds the strength to continue, and the centuries-old Jewish life of Oradea will remain strong.

Yitz Szyf received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and lives with his family in Kemp Mill, Maryland.