When he visited Bucharest in 1976 as part of an American Jewish Committee delegation, Alfred Moses was approached by two Jews who began to tell him about the pervasive anti-Semitism and official mistreatment meted out to them and their coreligionists. From then on, Moses worked to help Jews leave the country, which at the time was under the tyrannical rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. In the 1990s, he became the U.S. ambassador to Bucharest, and he has recently published a memoir of his experiences. Ben Zehavi writes:
Working with American Jewish and government leaders [from 1976 on], Moses successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to extend the most-favored-nation status annually to Romania in return for, among other things, Ceausescu allowing its Jews to emigrate to Israel. . . . According to its census, there were nearly 25,000 Jews in Romania in 1977. By 1992, there were fewer than 9,000. The last count in 2011 recorded 3,271 Romanian Jews.
Another of Moses’ legacies is the saving of Bucharest’s Great Synagogue, the oldest house of worship in the Romanian capital, in 1985. “I got a call from the Romanian chief rabbi who said Ceausescu was clearing two square miles of downtown Bucharest to clear space for his new ‘City of the People,’ and two of the buildings in the path of destruction were the Sephardi synagogue and the Great Synagogue,” Moses said.
The Israeli ambassador and the mayor of Bucharest tried feverishly to save the edifices and received assurances from Ceausescu that neither building would be harmed. But the ambassador shortly thereafter walked around the block and saw that the Sephardi synagogue was gone. It had been destroyed the night before.
It took the intervention of then-Secretary of State George Shultz to save the Great Synagogue.