The first Jews appeared on the territory of the modern Moldova in the 1st century with the Roman legions. Since the 15th century, it was an important transit stop for Jewish merchants from Constantinople and Poland. By the 18th century, several permanent Jewish communities had been established in urban developments. The 1803 census indicates that there were Jews living in all 24 Moldovan cities, as well as in many villages and towns.
With Russian rule in 1812, there was a permanent, and steadily increasing, Jewish presence in Moldova.
The Draconian anti-Jewish decrees in Russia did not initially affect the Jews of Bessarabia during this period, but the full loss of autonomy in Bessarabia to Russia saw these laws equally applied in the region. Various decrees of expulsion were issued, and for some Jews in Bessarabia, these measures sparked in interest in Zionism. The First Zionist Congress in 1897, for example, saw many Jews in the region represented by Jacob Bernstein-Kogan from Kishinev – the modern capital of Moldova.
By this time, the Jewish population continued to grow and constituted almost half of the entire population of Kishinev. However, tension with Moldova’s population coincided with this continued communal growth. Pogroms, such as the one in 1903 (which was facilitated by the accusations of a Russian-language newspaper called the “Bessarabian”) saw manifestations of familiar charges of “blood-libel” kill hundreds of innocent people. Moreover, thousands were left homeless after the violence, which was conducted by both Russians and Romanians. The 1903 Pogrom was particularly notable, as it caused international outrage. Thousands of Moldovan Jews emigrated, and the United States publically condemned the massacre and imposed trade restrictions against Russia. Despite this, more violence in 1905 saw the deaths of countless Jews across Moldova.
In 1917, Bessarabia became part of aa territory controlled by the Soviet Union, and in 1918 it became a part of Romania within the “Union.” The Jewish community in the area was given Romanian citizenship and was able to open Jewish day schools with instruction in Yiddish and Hebrew. Manifestations of anti-Semitism and violence continued to reveal themselves, despite promises from the Russian Revolution of some sort of civic equality for Jews in the Soviet Union.
Over 350,000 Jews perished in Bessarabia and Transnistria in ghettos, concentration camps, during the deportations and because of mass executions during the Holocaust.
Following the Holocaust and World War II, much of the Moldovan Jewish community faced numerous hardships – including being forbidden to practice many Jewish traditions. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s imposition of a strict Communism on its satellites that aimed at forcing some semblance of a shared culture on many different communities, Jewish ones included. The 1961 banning of celebrating Bar and Bat Mitzvahs further reinforces this.
In 1992 Moldova was torn apart by a civil war that resulted in a division of the country into two separate parts: The Republic of Moldova to the west of the Dniester, and the self-styled Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic of Transnistria to the east of the river. In response, the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities (Va’ad) in Moscow and Israeli organizations arranged for the evacuation of the Jewish population. In the aftermath of all the violence and turmoil, the fall of communism and establishment of democracy in Moldova, allowed Jewish life to begin to flourish again.
Notwithstanding these events, the Jewish regional communities on both sides of Nistru river are closely cooperating and form a single national organization.
Today, Moldovan Jewry is largely elderly and spread throughout the country – though the majority of Jews in Moldovia live in the capital of Chisinau (Kishinev). Since independence, the Jewish community in Moldova has significantly decreased due to high levels of immigration and the largely elderly population.
Despite this, the community actively supports and promotes Jewish live, values and education.