“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Dickens’s classic opening line of A Tale of Two Cities best encapsulates the 12 months I spent volunteering with the Jewish community in Bucharest, Romania.
I participated in a program called the Jewish Service Corps (JSC) through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a non-profit organization founded in 1914 to help Jews in need around the world. In my 2006-2007 JSC cohort, I was one of 12 North American young adults, along with one woman from Israel, who left family and friends far behind to work with the local population in places like St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Warsaw, Minsk, and Addis Ababa.
I was originally sent to Bucharest to help the Romanian Jewish Federation develop its own fundraising department. I have some experience in the field having spent two years working at a non-profit development consulting firm in Jerusalem. I arrived in late July full of ideas for how to effectively teach the local professionals the art and science of envisioning fundable projects, grant writing and reporting, and donor relations.
I received a shock when I was greeted by the outgoing volunteer with the news that my boss was being promoted, and a new guy would only be starting in September. Unsure of how to proceed, and only given the vague directive to “Go out, learn, and start developing relationships,” I spent the first month and a half wandering around the city and getting to know the local community members.
I used my strong Jewish background and experience in informal Jewish education to lead several workshops before the High Holidays designed to help the participants understand and appreciate the Jewish approach to repentance, prayer, and man’s role in this world.
Eventually, my incoming boss and the leadership of the Jewish Federation decided that it was not the right time to establish a fundraising department. My role shifted to entail helping the Federation’s youth department create and run community-building activities. My main job was coordinating the Oneg Shabbat program. When I arrived, it was a small monthly affair that gathered 20-30 people for a traditional Shabbat dinner.
With the help of an advertising campaign and the voluntary efforts of a wonderful local woman with experience in hotel management and catering, we launched a weekly program with an average of 100 people in attendance. People of all ages – elderly, middle-aged, young adults, and families with small children – came together to recite blessings over wine and challah, sing Jewish sings, eat traditional food, and hear some words of Torah. Each week had a different theme, like a Jewish or local holiday, an upcoming community event, or a Jewish community from around the world, and featured complementary foods, decorations, and hand outs.
I also helped plan and staff the Jewish summer camp held in a small Romanian mountain village. The JDC had funded a large-scale renovation and expansion of the facilities, and it was the first time using the new space. After many months of planning programs, training the staff, creating educational materials, gathering supplies, and agonizing over whether the building would be ready in time, we set out for staff week with much excitement and anticipation.
It is hard to describe the look on the faces of the staff members when they walked through the doors of the new building. Their eyes lit up as they took in their surroundings – the fresh paint, the neatly tiled bathrooms, the wooden dressers and matching bunk beds fitted with brightly colored bedding, and the spacious dining hall that overlooked the grassy grounds. They all stood a little taller, gratified and vindicated that their Jewish brethren overseas were so deeply committed to supporting their work.
Volunteering in Romania changed me in many ways, great and small. I learned about and got to know a different part of the Jewish people, one to which I had never previously been exposed, or, in all honesty, of which I was not even fully aware. I was touched by the love and commitment that many of the Jews I encountered feel towards their Jewish identity, despite the fact that under Communism they were not privileged to receive an extensive Jewish education.
My year in Bucharest was in some aspects, “the worst of times.” It is a large, crowded city marked by much poverty. I would walk to work each day passing by people dressed in dirty, torn clothing and begging for money or food. Not many people speak English, are friendly to foreigners, or even smile. There is also a lot of theft, so I was constantly on edge – tightly clutching my purse and second-guessing whether I was getting a fair price. My apartment was plagued by roaches, and it got to the point where even the food I had stored in the refrigerator became infested. I lived sparsely on $250 a month, and went sans personal indulgences like meals in restaurants, trips to the movies, or shopping sprees. I considered my periodic purchase of leave-in conditioner to be a luxury.