Moldova Virtual Jewish History Tour
by Ariel Scheib
Moldova (formerly Moldovia) became an independent democratic republic in May 1990. In 1979, Moldova had a Jewish population of 80,100, a decade later that had declined to 65,800; as of 2021, its Jewish population had dwindled to roughly 1,700 with most Jews residing in the capital Kishinev (Chisenau).
Jews in the 20th Century
Modern Jewish Community
In the 15th century, Sephardic Jewish merchants began using Bessarabia (a region that today includes Moldova) as a trade route between the Black Sea and Poland. Bessarabia is the region between the Dniestr and Prut rivers. Jews settled in the region, prompting a growth of communities in northern and central Bessarabia. Jewish communities were found in southern Bessarabia in the 16th century.
By the 18th century, several permanent Jewish communities had been established in urban developments. In the 18th and 19th century, Jews were very involved with local trading as well as liquor distilling. The rabbis of the communities prior to 1812 were Hayyim b. Solomon of Czernowitz, rabbi of Kishinev, and David Solomon Eibenschutz, rabbi of Soroki. By the end the 18th century, Hassidim had begun establishing small congregations.
By the time, of Russian rule in 1812, there was a permanent Jewish presence in Moldova, with an estimated 20,000 Jews living in the area. There were 16 Jewish schools with 2,100 students and 70 synagogues. The region became a center for both Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In 1836, the Jewish population had grown to 94,045 and, by 1897, there were 228,620 (11.8% of the population) Jews living in Bessarabia.
Between 1836 and 1853, a vast number of Jews entered agriculture and 17 Jewish agricultural settlements were formed. However, after several years of agrarian crises in Russia, the economic situation of Jews in Bessarabia began to deteriorate. By 1897, most Jews were once again involved in commerce and industry. During this period, Hassidim flourished among Jews of this region.
For the first half of the 19th century, Jews of Bessarabia were not affected by the severe Russian anti-Jewish decrees. By 1835, when Bessarabia began to lose its autonomy, Russian anti-Jewish laws began to be equally applied to Bessarabian Jewry. In 1869, 1879, 1886, and 1891 decrees of expulsion were issued to Jews of various cities. After the many hardships of the 19th century, Hovevei Zion societies were established in Bessarabia in the 1880s, led by Abraham Grunberg and Meir Dizengoff. Many Jews became strong Zionist activists and, at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, were represented by Jacob Bernstein-Kogan from Kishinev.
By the end of the 19th century, the Jews made up approximately half of Kishinev’s population of 125,000. The population continued to grow as tensions with Moldova’s populace mounted, culminating in massacres of Jews in 1903 and 1905 in Kishinev. Most Moldovan Jews lived in poverty, working as cobblers, watchmakers, peddlers, and outside the cities, farmers. Under the Russian Empire, tsarist authorities either encouraged or allowed the local population to attack the Jewish population during Easter Day, April 6-7, 1903, spurred by a blood libel that had been printed in a national newspaper. P. Krushevan, director of the Bessarabian newspaper Bessarabets, incited the incident through numerous anti-Semitic articles, which preceded the pogrom. Led by Vyacheslav Plehve, and supported by the Russian Ministry of the Interior, 49 Jews were killed, 500 were wounded and hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were severely damaged in the attacks. Both Romanians and Russians joined in the riots, and the 5,000 soldiers stationed in the city did nothing to prevent or stop the pogrom. About 2,000 Jewish families were left homeless.
News of the event reverberated throughout Europe, and thousands of Moldovan Jews emigrated. The United States reacted with public condemnations and trade restrictions against Russia. Massacres during the 1905 Russian Revolution, only two years later, resulted in the death of hundreds more Jews in towns across Moldova.
Jews in the 20th Century
In Kishinev, a second massive pogrom occurred on October 19-20, 1905, in which 19 Jews were killed and 56 wounded in a second attack on the Jewish community. This time, several Jews organized into defense units to protect the community. The famous poem, Be-Ir ha-Haregah (In the City of Slaughter), by Chaim Nachman Bialik was prompted by this second attack on the Jewish community of Kishinev. Overall, the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 had a profound effect on the Jewish community of Moldova, as thousands immigrated to the United States and the Americas.
In 1917, Bessarabia became a territory controlled by Soviet power. The Russian Revolution brought some civic equality for the Jews of Bessarabia.
Romania took control of Bessarabia between 1918 and 1940, and Jewish life continued to thrive in the region. Jews automatically received Romanian citizenship in 1918 and were permitted to open Jewish elementary and secondary schools with instruction in Yiddish and Hebrew. By 1922, there were approximately 140 Jewish schools in Bessarabia. During this time, there also existed 13 Jewish hospitals and old-age homes. By 1920, the Jewish population in Moldova numbered about 267,000. Although, the numbers of Jewish citizens continued to climb, many communities experienced hostility and anti-Jewish harassment. The weakening of the Bessarabian economy also hit the Jewish population extremely hard; however, they received assistance provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee.
The 1930s marked the peak of Jewish life in Moldova. In 1935, 40 Jewish communities united as the Union of Jewish Communities of Bessarabia. In 1940, Bessarabia was reclaimed by the Soviets, who promptly sent thousands of Jews suspected of disloyalty to gulags (work camps) or to Siberia.
After the German-led invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany reconquered Bessarabia on July 23, 1941. During this fighting, thousands of Jews died in mass shootings, deportations, ghettos and concentration camps on Bessarabian and Ukrainian territory. A large number of the Bessarabian Jewry was deported to Transnistria or massacred by the Einsatzkommandos. The Jewish community of Kishinev was nearly annihilated, with the Nazis murdering 53,000 out of the 65,000 inhabitants of the city. While many Moldavians are believed to have collaborated with their German and Romanian occupiers (Romania joined the Axis powers in late-1940), Israel has recognized 53 Moldavians as “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, more than 42,000 Moldovan Jews have immigrated to Israel.
In August 1944, the Russians reoccupied the region. This land became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic with the capital in Kishinev. Following the Holocaust, much of the Jewish community of Moldova met with increasing hardships, were forbidden to practice many Jewish traditions, under Communism. In 1961, the Jews were forbidden by the government from celebrating Bar/Bat mitzvahs and, in 1964, all synagogues were closed except for one in Kishinev.
In 1992, Moldova was struck with a civil war which left the country divided. In settling the conflict, Moldova was partitioned into the Republic of Moldova and the Republic of Transnistria. Because of this conflict, much of the Jewish community was evacuated from the area by the Moscow and Israeli Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities (Va’ad). Following the fall of Communism, Jewish life in Moldova began to flourish again with the emerging democratic society.
The Jewish population of Moldova has decreased substantially since independence due to the high percentage of elderly Jews and high levels of immigration, predominately to Israel. Thousands of Transnistria’s estimated 12,000 Jews left after the outbreak of hostilities in 1991, most making aliyah; thousands more left Moldova proper at that time.
The majority of Jews live in the capital city of Kishinev. Communal institutions continue to be centered in Chisinau. Communities also exist in Beltsy, Tiraspol, Bender, Soroky, Rybnitsa, Orgei and up to 45 other small villages across Moldova. One-quarter to one-half of the community is elderly, and nearly 80 percent of Moldovan Jews report significant economic hardship. Elderly Jews receive pensions of only ten dollars per month, while Jewish teachers make fifty dollars a month.
The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Moldova (AJOCM) is the primary umbrella for the Jewish community; it runs programs such as the Moldova-Israel Friendship Association, the Moldova-Israel Foreign Trade Association, the Jewish Museum, and the monthly Nash Golos (“Our Voice”) Jewish newspaper.
The Union of Jewish Organizations of Chisinau (SEVROK), an umbrella group in Chisinau, was created from the Moldovan Cultural Center. The Religious Jewish Community of Moldova also operates in the capital. Chisinau’s Jewish Community Center, an outgrowth of SEVROK, is housed in the Manger Children’s Jewish Library. The Center and the Library are both supported by The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). There are five other JCCs in Moldova – in Beltsy, Bendery, Rybnitza, and Soroki, and a combined JCC/Hesed in Tiraspol. A Hillel chapter is based in Chisinau.
The Organization of Ghetto Survivors, 250 members strong, is headed by Shaps Roif, a Moldovan Holocaust survivor. The organization works to obtain pensions and compensation for Moldovan survivors equal to those received by Holocaust survivors in other countries.
The following organizations have also been established in Moldova since 1992:
• Kishinev Jewish Library
• Organization of Jewish Veterans of World War II
• Organization of Former Refugees
• Women’s organization HAVA
• Society of Jewish Culture
• Association of Former Prisoners of Concentration Camps and Ghettos
• Federation of Jewish Religious Communities
• Educational University of Jewish Culture
• TV program Af der Yiddisher gas (“On the Jewish Street”)
• Radio program Yiddish lebn (“Jewish Life”)
Currently, reports say that only one rabbi serves in Moldova: Chabad emissary Rabbi Zalman Abelsky, who is both Chief Rabbi of Moldova and President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Moldova. He has been in Chisinau since the early 1990s. Rabbi Moshe Budilovsky, who passed away in 2001, had been a second practicing rabbi, associated with Agudat Israel since his arrival in 1997.
Chabad Lubavitch maintains synagogues in Chisinau and Tiraspol and is active throughout Moldova. The movement runs one of the two Jewish day schools in Moldova – the 250-student Jewish School #15, a rabbinical school operated through the synagogue, and two pre-schools. In addition, Chabad runs several welfare and supplementary education programs and publishes a monthly newspaper, Istoky (“Roots”).
Agudath Israel operates the yeshiva high school, Torat Emet, where up to 200 boys and girls are separated into two programs. The Yeshiva is in the same building as the once famous synagogue and yeshiva of the pre-World War II era that was headed by Rabbi Leib Yehuda Tsirelson. Rabbi Tsirelson was killed on the first day of Germany’s invasion by a bomb. The Torat Emet stands across from a large sports stadium in which Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Jewish School #22, established in 1991, educates up to 300 students. This school was established by the Israeli government’s Lishkat Hakesher (Nativ) as part of its Maavar (Tsofia) program. World ORT established technology and media centers within the school in 2001. These Jewish schools are all funded in part by the Moldovan government and the Israeli Cultural Center. At least eight Jewish Sunday schools operate throughout Moldova – three in the capital, and one each in Bender, Soroky, Beltsy, Rybnitsa and Tiraspol.
The Israeli Embassy’s Israeli Cultural Center operates in Chisinau, and the Israeli Government and Moldovan Education Ministry jointly run a school to prepare children for aliyah. Jewish Agency For Israel also has a presence and runs Nesharim summer camps and winter seminars on Jewish history and tradition. Israel’s Open University, sponsored by JDC, is based in the capital, while Chisinau State University and the Academy of Sciences each have a Judaica department. More generally, Jewish programs are included in Moldovan university curricula, though a critical shortage of teachers and funding threatens these programs.
International organizations have provided significant aid to Moldovan Jewry. In addition to funding renovation of the Community Center, Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has distributed medicine, clothing and educational materials to the community, and funds the Hesed Chana welfare center in Tiraspol and Hesed Yehuda in memory of Rabbi Leib Yehuda Tsirelson in Chisinau. The JDC helps nearly 2,500 elderly Jews in Chisinau alone. JDC works closely with The United Jewish Federation (UJF) of Pittsburgh and local leaders through the Spectrum Seminar, a strategic planning program for local and national community development. UJF Pittsburgh has worked with JDC on several welfare programs. In 2003, JDC launched a major program to feed low-income children under age 16. The JDC also sponsored a Jewish Campus in Chisinau, which houses the Jewish Community Center, a synagogue, Hesed, and a new Holocaust museum. JDC runs the Ofek Jewish book festival through Moldova’s JCCs.
In August 2019, Jews in Chisinau reopened the Wooden Synagogue or the Lemnaria Synagogue in the cellar of the Kedem Jewish Community Center. The original synagogue was established in 1835 and nationalized by the Soviets in 1940. In 2005, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee opened the JCC in the building that once housed the synagogue. The community now has four synagogues. It had more than 80 before the Holocaust.
In July 2022, Israel donated a consignment of medical equipment to Moldova valued at $700,000 for diagnosis and surgery rooms. State Secretary of the Health Ministry, Ion Prisacaru, said, “On the pandemic period, they were with us and helped us cope with the challenges through the providing of batches of medicines, medical and protection equipment. The same occurred after the unleashing of the war in Ukraine too, when from the very first day, physicians from Israel provided assistance to refugees both at border crossing points and at placement centers.’’
The new donation will benefit Ukrainian refugees and Moldovans.“We have a very good communication with the Moldovan authorities and we assure you that we will continue providing every needed support,’’ Ambassador of Israel to Moldova Joel Lyon said.
In January 2023, Israel donated equipment worth more than $250,000. This included eight incubators, six resuscitation tables, and three radiant tables for newborns at district hospitals in Cantemir, Căușeni, Criuleni, Edineț, Orhei, Soroca, Străseni, Ștefan Vodă, and Ungheni.
Tiraspol is a city located in the Southeast of Moldova. Since the 17th century, this city has always had a thriving Jewish presence. By 1897, the Jewish community equaled 27 percent of the total population of Tiraspol (8,668). During the Holocaust, nearly the entire Jewish community perished in Nazi concentration camps. After World War II, the Jewish community began to grow once again and, by the 1960s, there were nearly 1,500 Jews living in Tiraspol.
Soroki is a city in northern Moldova. Jewish settlement in Soroki is first recorded in 1657. An organized community, however, dates to the 18th century. During this period, Soroki had 157 Jewish families and was led by Rabbi David Solomon Eibenschutz. By 1897, there were 8,763 Jews, making up over half of the population of Soroki. During the 19th century, most Jews in Soroki, engaged in agriculture, grew primarily tobacco and grapes. The economic crisis of the 1880s caused many Jews to immigrate to other nations in search of economic prosperity.
Prior to World War II, the Jewish community of Soroki was thriving; it included a several Jewish schools, a hospital, and old-age home. The entire community was nearly annihilated with the entry of German forces into the region. The Jewish community is beginning to rebuild itself.
Rascani is a town in northern Moldova. During the 19th century, Rascani became a major industrial center in Bessarabia due to the flourishing Jewish community. In 1897, the Jewish population was 69 percent of the total population at 2,247 Jews. In the early 20th century, the Tarbut organization maintained much of the communal affairs. In 1941, most of the Jewish community was destroyed with the entry of the German and Romanian army.
Teleneshty is a town in central Moldova. The town was founded by the estate’s owner when Jews were invited to work in the area in the late 18th century. In 1794, a hevra kaddisha was consecrated and maintained until World War II. By 1897, there were 3,876 Jews living in Teleneshty, composing 89 percent of the total population. The Jewish community was devastated in World War II, as nearly all the Jews were annihilated by the Nazis.
Moldova has a history of virulent anti-Semitism, including widespread local collaboration in the Holocaust. Although, the Jewish community of Moldova is beginning to flourish, many Moldovan Jews still experience anti-Semitism in their country; everything from vandalism to Holocaust denial. While today no policy of anti-Semitism exists at the state level, incidents do occur on a community level. In 1999, a Holocaust memorial in the capital was desecrated, and other incidents of street beatings and bigotry against Jews have occurred. During Passover in 2002, two teenagers destroyed almost 50 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Chisinau. The police arrested these teens but claimed that their crime was not anti-Semitic. The police later arrested several skinheads suspected of bombing a Tiraspol synagogue in April and June of 2002.
Local groups such as the Youth Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly have made efforts to protest such anti-Semitic incidents. In June 2003, a municipal radio station decided to suspend a controversial call-in show in which callers had expressed anti-Semitic views. On May 9, 2005, six gravestones were vandalized in a Jewish cemetery in Chisinau. Over the past few years, the synagogue in Tiraspol as well as dozens of gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Tiraspol have been vandalized and attacked by anti-Semitic Russian nationalists.
Government relations with the Jewish community are reported to be normal. After construction in a Chisinau suburb revealed a mass grave from the Holocaust, the community alerted the government, which halted the construction and erected a memorial. A larger Holocaust memorial is prominently located near the national government offices in Chisinau. In April 2003, President Voronin unveiled a monument commemorating the Chisinau pogrom on its 100th anniversary. Voronin has condemned anti-Semitism in speeches to Jewish audiences.
Prospects for the restitution of communal property remain uncertain. Moldova has no general statute on restitution, and the Jewish community has achieved restitution of only two of the many communal properties seized during the Soviet period. In conjunction with the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, the Moldovan and U.S. governments have signed a Declaration of Cooperation to establish frameworks for the protection and preservation of cultural sites. In February 2002, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council signed an agreement with the Moldovan government, giving the Council free access to World War II-era government intelligence archives.
Tourist Sites & Contacts
The Jewish Cultural Center
4 Diorditsa Street
Gleizer Sheel (The Glaziers Synagogue)
8 Chabad Lubavitch Street
The Ghetto Memorial
Jerusalem 3000 Street
Memorials take place every year here onYom HaShoah.
Yeshiva of Kishinev
Shutafa 5 277001
Phone: 264-238, 264-331
Yakimovsky per. 8 277000
4 28th June Street
Sources: World Jewish Congress.
Michael Zaidner, Jewish Travel Guide 2000, Intl Specialized Book Service (2000).
JCC of Kishinev.
“The Jews of Moldova” from Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova.
“The Jews of Moldova, 1988”.
“Jewish Cemetery Vandalized in Moldova”.
Former Soviet Union Monitor.
“Kishinev,” Encylopaedia Judaica.
“Jewish History of Moldova”.
Esther Hecht, “The Jewish Traveler: Kishinev,” Hadassah Magazine, (November 2004).
Memories of the Holocaust Kishinev (Chisinau) 1941-1944.
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Moldova’s dwindling Jewish community reopens synagogue seized by Soviets,” JTA, (August 26, 2019).
“Israel donates consignment of medical equipment to Moldova,” moldpres, (July 6, 2022).
“Nine hospitals provided with new equipment with Israel's support,” moldpres, (January 27, 2023).
Kishinev Monument Photo courtesy of Samuel Aroni.