CHISINAU, Moldova (JTA) — To tour the largely empty Jewish communities of Moldova and its capital, Chisinau — once known by Jews the world over as Kishinev — is not to wonder where did all the Jews go but why there are any remaining.
Overgrown cemeteries are all that remain of most outlying shtetls and long-abandoned synagogues that lay in ruins in the city, home to the notorious 1903 pogrom that prompted Theodor Herzl to propose his controversial Uganda plan as a temporary Zionist refuge.
Chisinau once had 70 synagogues; today there is just one. As Alexander Pinchevsky said of the remaining house of worship, “It’s not good enough; it spoils the image of the Jewish community.”
Pinchevsky is one of two Jewish local tycoons working to restore some dignity to the remnant and memory of Bessarabia’s historic Jewish community amid its present despair and disrepair.
And they have received backing from a surprising source: a man responsible for moving many of the country’s Jews to Israel who now says he can rejuvenate the community with the help of local volunteers — with an eye on Natalie Portman and Rahm Emanuel.
That’s all taking place in a small, landlocked Eastern European nation with a bitter and violent recent history. In the 20th century alone, the country traded back and forth between the Russian Empire, Romania and the Soviet Union. About 20 years ago an independent Moldova emerged, one wracked with civil war and grinding poverty.
The Jews fared even worse. Late 19th and early 20th century pogroms and persecution were succeeded by German concentration camps, death marches and mass, unmarked graves in the forests. Liberation at World War II’s end turned into nearly five decades of Soviet oppression. Independence has brought little respite.
So it was no surprise that when the Iron Curtain fell, Jews who were able fled. From a pre-World War II height of some 400,000 Jews, today there are 12,000 to 15,000 in the country, mostly in Chisinau. The small community is a weak one, beset with massive assimilation. Many are elderly and poor. And the long tradition of anti-Semitism has not abated, nor has government indifference to it.
“The one thing we want is to know that tomorrow there will not be a pogrom, that they won’t come and throw us in the river,” said Anatholy Leibovitch, whose many local businesses include facilitating Israelis investing in Moldova
For the past decade, efforts to keep the community afloat have been mostly borne by Pinchevsky and Alexander Bilinkis. They serve as co-chairmen of The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Moldova and have been funding activities from their own pockets.
Pinchevsky 56, is a businessman with interests across the Moldovan economy, from a chain of gas stations to malls and health clubs. He also sits on the Moldova Olympic Committee.
Bilinkis, 44, has a company that produces canned pickles and baby food. He also makes kosher wine.
Most of their efforts have focused on welfare for survivors and establishing Holocaust commemorations. Community events and celebrations are largely left to the traditional outside aid groups such as the Jewish Agency for Israel or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Now the two community leaders want to restore a small portion of the city’s grand Jewish past.
They are leading a group with an ambitious plan to restore the historic yeshiva named for Yehuda Leib Tsirelson, the chief rabbi of Bessarabia, as the region was once known. The only Jewish member of parliament in Romania, he was killed when the invading Germans bombed Chisinau.
Pinchevsky and Bilinkis, along with eight other wealthy Moldovan Jews, already have donated $660,000 to buy back the derelict shell of the building. They need $3.4 million more for renovations, much of which will have to come from outside the country, Pinchevsky said.
Plans call for the renovated building to house a synagogue, yeshiva, mikvah, kosher restaurant and market. The structure is intended to be a focal point for the community and host events such as a 600-person communal Passover seder organized by the philanthropists for the first time this year.
The effort to reinvigorate the community is catching a boost from an unlikely source.
Chaim Chessler has done more than anyone in recent times to deplete the number of Jews in Moldova, which numbered about 90,000 on the eve of independence. As the head of the Jewish Agency delegation to the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, he oversaw the massive aliyah to Israel. At one stage he was sending 500 Moldovans a day to the Jewish state, he said.
“Maybe I’m guilty, or responsible, for taking those I could to Israel, but now I also feel responsible to those who remain,” he said.
Since leaving the agency, he founded Limmud FSU in 2005, an organization that brings Jewish learning to Jews throughout the former Soviet Union. This month, the group hosted its first conference in Moldova; more than 400 people showed up – approximately 360 of them from Moldova and the rest from Russian and Ukraine.
Chessler believes that the key to Limmud’s success is its reliance on volunteers, which gives the local community a sense of ownership over the program. “Much of the idea of Limmud is to return the pride to the community, to give them renewed energy,” he said.
But Chessler, a consummate showman with a restless energy, also is superb in the use of celebrity to give his program added gloss. He uses the emotional appeal of his projects to draw in the rich and famous, who then attach their luster to Limmud and the local community.
For this program, he brought American philanthropist and businessman Matthew Bronfman — chair of Limmud FSU’s steering committee — to discover his ancestors’ hometowns. Bronfman, in turn, used his clout to persuade Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat to attend Limmud’s opening, an unprecedented stamp of government approval for the beleaguered Jewish community.
And Chessler knows who he wants for the next Limmud.
“We have to target Natalie Portman,” he said. “Her family is from Moldova; we have to get in touch with her. And also [Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel. He is difficult to reach, so we have a job to do.”
Such efforts may give Chisinau’s Jews hope for a more vibrant community, but saving the smaller, outlying communities — shells of the shtetls of the past — seems unlikely.
One, Soroca, is on the border with Ukraine. It once had 18,000 Jews; only 100 are left and only 20 of them are Jewish according to Jewish law, said community head Semyon Weksler.
The glory of his community is clearly in the past.
“I have the cleanest cemetery in all of Moldova.” Weksler said with pride. “Ask anyone who has visited.”
Still, he seems undeterred in his task.
“Frankly speaking,” he said, “there are not going to be any Jews here in the near future. We will try and do everything we can so this light does not fade away.”