“To put on kippa next to the Western Wall and place a note [in it] is one of my childhood dreams. And it is a dream come true,” said Dorin Cioba, self-proclaimed “King of the Roma,” last week ahead of his first visit to the Holy Land.
The Roma, or Romani people, are more commonly known by outsiders as “Gypsies.”
“There is a special relationship between Gypsies and Jews – two people who have suffered persecution. I grew up on the Old and New Testaments and am a man of faith. For me, the Jews are a role model,” Cioba continued.
Cioba, who lives in Sibiu, in the region of Transylvania, is the leader of around three million Roma spread throughout Europe, but with a strong concentration in Romania. The “king” arrived in Israel to take part in the opening of a new exhibition by Israeli photographer Roni Ben-Ari, who spent the past year photographing the Roma way of life in Eastern Europe. The exhibit is currently open at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan.
Despite his position of importance, as indicated by the small entourage that accompanied him, Cioba was briefly detained by immigration officials at Ben Gurion Airport, but was sent on his way following intervention by Ben-Ari.
While in the country, Cioba toured Jerusalem’s Old City and the numerous local Christian holy sites there. Cioba and his men were reportedly moved to tears while praying at the Western Wall. “I keep breathing the air of Jerusalem and I can feel it all over. I breathe the history. It is so exciting to me,” he said.
The Roma delegation and their leader also paid a solemn visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. As many as 1.5 million Gypsies were exterminated alongside the Jews in the Nazi Holocaust.
Though hailed as many as a “king” and often seen wearing a golden crown, Cioba does not live in a palace, but is relatively well off considering the poverty that characterizes so much of the Roma population in Eastern Europe.
Those known as Gypsies were traditionally nomadic, but in more recent decades have undergone a settling process. Cioba’s father, Florin Cioba, played a large role in that when he urged the Roma to stop wandering and begging and to make education a higher priority.
The Roma community continues to hold out hope of eventual independence, and sees Israel as a role model of a people who lived in exile only to reunite and become a nation again.