Feature Stories

Q&A with Luciana Friedmann: Breaking a Glass Ceiling

On a cold winter’s eve, Luciana Friedmann, the young, female president of the Jewish community of the Romanian city of Timisoara, is in a hurry.

In less than an hour the doors at the Or Hadash synagogue will open, and dozens of members of the Jewish community will arrive for prayers — followed by a weekly communal discussion and a dinner of stuffed eggs, roasted chicken, and couscous.

Just before she left her house, the 36-year-old journalist and community activist spoke to JDC over the phone about being a woman in a position traditionally dominated by men and the rejuvenation of Jewish life in a part of the world where it has waned for decades.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your background and your community?

A: I grew up in Timisoara, a city of 400,000 people in the west of Romania near Serbia and Hungary. There used to be a huge Jewish community here between the wars. Now there are 610 members — I can tell you exactly. Even during communism we grew up in a community that had Hebrew lessons and activities. Rabbi Neumann, who was our rabbi for more than 60 years and a president of the community, was a close friend and felt passionately about Judaism.

After the fall of communism, we started to attend the JDC events organized in different places throughout Europe. One of the most popular at that time was Szarvas [JDC’s pioneering Jewish summer camp in nearby Hungary], and I became more and more involved.

Q: How did you become president of the Jewish community?

A: In 2010, when I was 32, we had elections. The president before me was 86. Now we have a board of mainly young people. Of the nine, six are from my generation. We all went to the same Hebrew lessons and seminars.

Q: Has gender been an issue at all as community president?

A: After four years I can tell you it’s not a big issue. When I started I thought it would be. But after a while people understood they could talk freely with me. I tried to adjust myself. I cannot adjust others. Many times I realized I had to learn.

Being a journalist was an advantage because I had talked to many elderly people with experience who were leaders. There are a few other women who are leaders of Jewish communities in Romania, so it’s not that unusual, though they are older.

Q: How do you have the time to be the head of the community and a journalist?

A: Now I write less, only for the Jewish newspapers, but I believe journalism is still a passion that you carry all your life.

Q: What kind of programs do you have to offer the community?

A: Today, Shabbat, we will have our community service. About 40 to 70 people come each week. It’s not just a religious affair but a community one. We have an elderly center that’s open three times a week. We have a children’s program, olam yeladim, and a Purim show. We have lots of programming, such as Hebrew lessons, middle-aged meetings, choir, social gaming evenings, conferences … it might be difficult to tell you all of them. But JDC’s support, through its director for Romania, Israel Sabag, is very important.

Q: How is Timisoara’s community coping with migration and aging? Is it shrinking or growing?

A: It’s quite stable. Some people died, it’s true, a few important people. But if you look at numbers and participation we had 598 members of the community last year and now we have 610, so it’s a growing community. There are still people coming.

Q: Who are the new people who are just joining?

A: They are people from Timisoara who didn’t connect or just found out about their Jewish roots. We accommodate their needs in the Jewish community. For them it’s very important. But we have a few newborns as well.

Q: What does the future hold for the Jewish community of Timisoara?

A: If you are not optimistic, it won’t work. Sometimes I try to ignore cold demographics and look at the needs of the community. The support of JDC for our Jewish life is vital, and we are grateful. I often think of the elderly people, some of whom travel 600 kilometers to take part in a Jewish activity, and I feel inspired. I look at them, think of my own generation and say, ‘If we want to have a future, we have to be optimistic.’

JDC’s work in Romania is generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, the Howard and Geraldine Polinger Family Foundation, and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

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