ORADEA, Romania (JTA) -- Yitzhak Szyf remembers being a little "freaked out" when he arrived in Oradea, a city in the western Romanian region of Transylvania.
As his Russian-made jet touched down at the tiny regional airport outside this city of 210,000, Szyf was greeted by the president of the local Jewish community and taken to the bleak, communist-era apartment block that would be his home for the next few weeks.
On that December night, the sound of stray dogs outside his window kept him awake.
A fourth-year rabbinical student at Yeshiva University in New York, Szyf, 25, was on a reconnaissance mission. Representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had appealed to Y.U. to supply a rabbinic intern, and Szyf was dispatched on a brief visit to determine if he could handle a longer stay.
"My first thought was, 'Whoops. What am I doing here?' " Szyf recalled recently. "It seemed like the end of the world out there."
That impression changed the next morning when Szyf met one of the community’s young leaders, who was fluent in English and, like the rest of the community, thrilled to welcome the new "rabbi." Their excitement was contagious, and Szyf ultimately committed to a six-month stint.
Oradea once was home to a thriving community of 33,000 Jews, more than 90 percent of whom perished in the Holocaust. The tiny remnant that returned after the war was gradually whittled down by the communists.
Today the community numbers 700 and is largely defined by a small cadre of older members, many in their 90s, and an increasingly energetic youth contingent. Friction between the generations is a persistent theme of Jewish life in Oradea.
In Szyf, the young guard saw in Szyf an ally in their struggle to persuade the older leadership to loosen its grip on the community’s religious life. The elders, meanwhile, hoped that with Szyf’s religious training, traditional Judaism in Oradea might not cease with their passing -- though their initial reaction to the young, beardless Szyf was skepticism.
"At first the old members were very disappointed when they saw me," Szyf said. "I did not look like the traditional rabbi that they were used to and seemed too young for the job. It took a while to gain their respect."
Szyf also gained the respect of the younger generation by orchestrating a number of small but symbolic victories in their quest to make the community more welcoming -- a vital precondition for growth in a population where Jewish education is severely lacking.
When Szyf arrived the synagogue lacked a mechitza, the divider between men and women mandated by Orthodox practice. That meant women had to wait outside in the cold during the service. Szyf wanted to install a mechitza, but the elders balked.
Ultimately the matter was decided by the country’s chief rabbi in Bucharest, who ruled that a mechitza was permissible.
Szyf also introduced more singing to the service, previously led by an older gentleman who spoke the prayers in a thick Yiddish accent. On Friday nights Szyf delivers a brief sermon in English, which is translated into Romanian.
Cristian Ezri, the community’s youth leader, calls Szyf a "mini-Messiah" for prevailing upon the elders to be more open to change.
Szyf's innovations help address the core complaint voiced by the young -- that the service is incomprehensible and the elders won't consider ways to make it more relevant and meaningful.
"That’s only half the truth," said Mihail Freundlich, 85, the community’s longtime Talmud Torah teacher. "We don’t know what was first, the egg or the chicken. They’re not interested because they don’t understand, or they don’t understand because they don’t know. This is changing the cause and the effect."
While Szyf helps referee the simmering generational dispute – he is the only "rabbi" in Romania outside Bucharest – he also is aiming to develop skills necessary for his future career serving as the community’s rabbi, teacher, halachic decisor, kashrut supervisor, youth leader and cantor.
Yeshiva University has spent thousands of dollars to provide him with a unique version of the internship it requires of its rabbinic students.
"This really celebrates our agenda," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future, which is aimed at harnessing the university’s resources for the benefit of the wider community. Among its goals are training Jewish leaders and infusing students with a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
But while Szyf's short stay is deemed a useful enrichment experience by his rabbinic overseers in New York, for Oradea’s Jews it may mean the difference between survival and extinction. Over Passover, Szyf returned to New York for a brief visit with an eye toward helping recruit his replacement.
Before he left Romania, Szyf presided over a Passover seder for about 120 people in Oradea’s kosher canteen. At its conclusion he had guests mimic animal noises as they appeared in the verses of "Had Gadya," the seder's closing melody.
As the sounds of cows and dogs filled the room, a table of university students were in hysterics, their cheeks flushed from laughter and the required four cups of wine.
"Before he came," said psychology student Kati Eszter, 23, "we didn’t even know this song exists."
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