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Focus on Bucharest’s Jewish Heritage

Updated: Dec 13, 2019


Bucharest holds an amazing mixture of cultures that used to be much richer and diverse in the past. The Jewish community holds some fascinating examples of preserving their culture, despite the harsh realities they endured. The Choral Temple might be the most striking example, showing how Jewish life is still active in today's Bucharest, celebrating all Jewish customs and traditions.

Although many members of the community played an important role in Romania's rise as a strong, independent country, very little is remembered today. From the development of the local banking system, to international trade, and various arts and crafts, Jewish-Romanian people have played a key role, and very often a low-key role, in important historical events.

I’ve interviewed one of the most passionate and visible members of today’s Jewish community in Bucharest:

Gabbai of Choral Temple – Gilbert Shaim

What is your role in the Jewish community (as a gabbai)?

A gabbai is a a person who assists in the running of synagogue services. A shamash (literally 'servant') or gabbai can also mean an assistant to a rabbi. While the specific set of duties vary from synagogue to synagogue, a gabbai's responsibilities will typically include ensuring that the religious services run smoothly. The gabbai may be responsible for calling congregants up to the Torah.

What do you think about the Jewish Heritage in Bucharest today?

More than 800,000 Jews lived in Romania before the Holocaust, of which over 100,000 were living in Bucharest, where hundreds of synagogues, religious institutions, schools and Jewish cultural institutes were active.

Today only 2 Bucharest synagogues are religiously active. The Jewish cultural heritage is impressive, from Elias Hospital to the magnificent Choral Temple. The contribution of the Jews to the progress of the Romanian society can not be denied, this ethnic group giving a large number of scientists, cultured people, writers, musicians, painters, names such as Solomon Marcus, Iosif Sava, Maia Morgenstern, Academician Nicolae Cajal and so forth.

Why is the Jewish community important to Bucharest?

Because it reflects the cultural diversity, the tolerance and cosmopolitan air that brought prestige to Bucharest between the two World Wars, but also for the impressive cultural legacy left by Romanian Jews.

When did the Synagogues become a touristic attraction in Bucharest?

Starting 2015 we have succeeded, with sustained efforts, to transform the Temple into an international tourist attraction, where people from around the world can see and listen to interesting things about the history of the Temple and of Jewish life in Romania.

The Temple's unveiling as an international tourist landmark has managed to bring to public attention the fate of the other synagogues of Bucharest.

We observe a growing youth interest for Judaism and for the instrumental role this historical minority has played in the making of modern Romania.

Where do most of the visitors come from? (at the Choral Temple)

Most of them come from Israel, Italy, Romania, Great Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, even New Zeeland and yes, Faeroe Islands. We also have Muslim visitors from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey.

How does the Choral Temple influence the local Jewish community? What about the international Jewish community?

The Choral Temple is the heart of this community. My parents were married here by His Eminence, Rabbi Moses Rosen. I grew up here.

Being the closest replica of The Leopoldstädter Tempel in Vienna, an innovative architectural jewel of its time, the Coral Temple is part of the universal Jewish cultural heritage. Its historical significance is overwhelming, many historical figures such as Golda Meir, Shimon Perez, Menachem Begin made their marks on history here.

What is the most beautiful part of the surviving Jewish quarter?

The Coral Temple, the Jewish State Theatre, The Great Synagogue, The Holy Union Synagogue are some of the most important landmarks. Fortunately, there are some shining candles left after the darkness of communism.

What is your favourite part of the city?

Cismigiu Park, Herestrau Park, Romanian Peasant Museum.

My paternal grandparents were peasants, yes, Jews peasants. Before working as a coordinating emergency medical care physician doctor in Bucharest, my father spent 15 years as a country doctor and during my childhood I have spent many summers at the countryside. I love nature, peace, harmony and interesting people.

How would you describe the local Jewish community in 3 words?

Vibrant, varied, vigurous.

Who is your most favourite Jewish Romanian personality? Why?

His Eminence Rabbi Moses Rosen, the man who kept our community united and who, against all odds, kept the candle of the Jewish life in Romania during communism, as the Communist Regime was trying to erase all marks of the very heart of Jewish spirituality.

What is the relationship today between the Jewish community and the Christian Orthodox majority?

As far as I am concerned it is one of the safest countries for Jews in Europe. I can not speak on behalf of the entire community.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Jewish community in Bucharest / Romania?

The history of the Jews is a living testimony of the extraordinary ability to survive, adapt and continue hopefully moving forward of the Jewish people.

I can only look up to a brighter future as our legacy teaches us that change is a fact of life.