Moldova’s Jews, Torn Between Revival and Emigration

Limmud conference in Chisinau highlights tension between twin desires of rebuilding Jewish life and immigrating to Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
A group photo taken at the Limmud conference in Chisinau, Moldova.
A group photo taken at the Limmud conference in Chisinau, Moldova.Credit: George Omen
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

CHISINAU, Moldova — On a side street in the old quarter of the Moldovan capital stands a small house, looking very much as it did on the day 111 years ago when rioters broke in and murdered Jews in what came to be known around the world as the Kishinev pogrom. Last weekend, the sounds of music and dancing came from the blue-and-white-painted building across from the house. The graduating seniors of ORT Herzl, one of two Jewish schools in the city, were rehearsing their commencement ceremony.

In 1903, Kishinev was the capital of Bessarabia, a province of czarist Russia. After Moldova, a small nation sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, declared its independence in 1991, the city’s Romanian name, Chisinau, was restored. The city’s Jewish community, numbering around 10,000, is now struggling to revive Jewish life after the long dormancy of the Communist era. But despite the attempt to focus on the future, history rarely seems far away.

“I wish Jews around the world would know us for the scientists and artists who came from this town, and not immediately associate us with the pogrom,” says Irina Shikhova, who runs the Chisinau Jewish Museum. “But history is just too strong, you can’t fight it.” Today, however, the challenge, is not anti-Jewish violence and persecution, it’s trying to build a new generation in one of the poorest corners of Europe.

Last weekend, more than 400 local Jews gathered at conference center outside Chisinau for the second Limmud Moldova. The festival of Jewish education and culture pioneered in Britain 25 years ago has since been replicated across the globe, including the countries of the former Soviet Union, Limmud FSU has been organizing such conferences for over eight years. For an overwhelmingly secular community which has few opportunities to gather together throughout the year, Limmud is a place not just to hear Jewish lecturers who have traveled from Israel, Russia and the United States, but also to meet, network and discuss the community’s uncertain future.

Nowhere is it more uncertain that in the even smaller Jewish communities in other Moldovan cities, such as Balti (Belz), another famous name in Eastern European Jewish history.

“It’s getting much more difficult to have any real communal life [in Balti], as most young people are either moving to Chisinau or leaving the country altogether,” says Tanya Rabotnikova, a member of the Limmud Moldova organizing committee and one of the leaders of the city’s 2,000-member Jewish community. “Fifty of us came for Limmud from Balti, paying the full participation fees, which is not easy, because we just can’t get any Jewish culture in our town,” she says.

“The fact that Chisinau is now hosting its own Limmud conference for the second time is proof of how vital Jewish life is here,” says the president of the Jewish community in the capital city, Alexander Belinkis. He of course acknowledges the difficulty of keeping the younger generation in Moldova. His own daughter has emigrated to Israel.

“Many leave and that’s understandable,” Belinkis says, adding, “But there are still a lot of young people who find good jobs here and set up families and while we are a relatively small committee with only 10,000 Jews in Chisinau, we are constantly improving our infrastructure.” While Chisinau has only one active synagogue, it has two Jewish schools (one of which is moving to a larger building next year). The community is trying to raise $3 million to remodel one of the large, old synagogues that was in use in the Soviet era and is now little more than a picturesque ruin into its new community center.

Aliyah research

For some Moldovan Jews, Limmud in Chisnau is mainly about seeking out the lecturers who have come from Israel, in order to try out their Hebrew and discuss what things will be like for them after they immigrate to Israel — after all, as Jews this is an option. Nicolai Agulnicov, a 17-year-old student from Chisinau, is planning aliyah to Israel next year. “There just aren’t any good jobs or prospects here if you’re not well-connected or have money,” he says, adding, “I don’t believe 50 years from now there will be any Jews left in Moldova.”

But Lidya Zambilovich, a marketing manager who is in charge of volunteers at Limmud Moldova, believes young Jews do have a future in Moldova. “Things are slowly beginning to improve and there are more jobs in information technology and business, and through events like Limmud we are building up our community. There will always be those who leave for more money and a different future, but many, like me, will continue to see Moldova as our home,” she says.

The CEO of Limmud FSU, Roman Kogan, says that the average age of participants at Limmud Moldova is less than 30, younger than at other Limmud conferences. “It very much reflects the fact that there is a younger generation here who want to build something for themselves and they are looking at Limmud for a vehicle.”

Politics does not seem to be a major consideration in the decision of Moldovan Jews over whether to stay or to emigrate, despite the fact that the country has become a focus for tension between Russia and the West in recent months. “People here have different views on the political situation,” Belinkis says, adding, “It doesn’t affect the community. The government here is friendly to the community but in its current situation it is incapable of supporting us financially in any way. We have to rely on ourselves.”

Moldovan youth hold digitally modified portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, before burning them, at a protest in Chisinau, April 6, 2014.Credit: AP

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