BERLIN – A group of Romanian high school students is set to arrive in Israel on Monday as part of broader exchange programs that have helped crystallize strong relations between the two countries in the fields of education and Holocaust remembrance.

“It is very important to forge a friendship on a personal level between Romania and Israel,” said Dr. Alex Hecht, a New York dentist and son of Holocaust survivors who has worked tirelessly over the years to promote increased bonds between the two countries.

Netanyhau meets Romanian PM Emil Boc in Bucharest (Moshe Milner/GPO)

He added that it is good for Israel to have friends in Europe.

Hecht, who grew up in northern Transylvania, said the group of Romanian students from Simleu Silvaniei will arrive in Israel for a six day visit. He spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week in a telephone interview during his visit to the small city of a little over 16,000. Simleu Silvaniei is joined with Petah Tikva, with a population of over 200,000, for a city partnership.

Hecht has spearheaded a series of Romanian-Israeli student exchanges and the revival of Jewish life and education in Simleu. He first became involved in the small Transylvania town of over a decade ago when he launched an effort to create a Holocaust museum and rebuild the old synagogue.

Daniel Stejeran, the director of the Holocaust museum that opened in 2005, told the Post by phone that the high school program has had three exchanges since it began three years ago. He said he believes the program is very important because it manages to get young people from Israel to connect to the Romanian culture and tradition.

“Our Holocaust museum is not just museum, it is a learning and educational center,” Stejeran said and added that visitors from the United States, Poland and Hungary have viewed the museum. Israeli ambassadors to Romania have visited the museum four times, Stejeran said and the current ambassador, Dan Ben- Eliezer attended three times since he began his tenure in Bucharest in 2010.

In an interview with Romanian TV in January, Ben-Eliezer said it was very important to have connections between Romania and Israel and “to focus on strengthening ties between the young generations.”

Speaking on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance day in Simleu, the ambassador commented on the partnership of Petah Tikva with the Romanian city.

“This kind of cooperation should be duplicated to other parts of Romania and in Israel so more bridges will be built between the young generations,” he said.

On the TV program, one Israeli student said that she felt love and support in Simleu and it in turn made her proud of Israel.

Stejeran said that prior to the Holocaust, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews in Simleu Silvaniei and the neighboring area and that less than 10 percent survived after the Shoa.

Israeli Rabbi Zvika Kfir, who was in Simleu last week, told the Post that within the exchange, the Romanian students visit the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and are exposed to Judaism and Christianity. The 51-year old Kfir, who was born in Haifa, has played a critical role in solidifying ties between Simleu and Israel since 2008.

“Romania is a very supportive country of Israel,” Kfir said, who works with Romanians across the country with respect to Jewish affairs. He said the experiences in Romania create a sense that “Israel is part of you,” despite being outside Israel. “[Israel] is there. You feel more safe and secure.”

Hecht said that other cities in Romania are aiming to replicate the Israeli- Romanian partnership that has developed from Simleu, including Sighetu Marmatiei, the birthplace of Noble Peace Prize winner Eli Wiesel.

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