A letter two years ago from the president of the re-emerging Jewish community of Sofia, Bulgaria, to officials at UJA-Federation of New York has opened a new world for them and two Jewish community centers here.
“We would love and feel a need for collaboration with the global Jewish community that New York and Israel represent,” wrote Alexander Oscar. “The needs of my community are Jewish education, staff training, the building of a nursery school, as well as being connected to the global Jewish community.”
The JCC of the Greater Five Towns was selected to partner with the Jews of Sofia, armed with a grant from UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish People. A community in Israel that has not yet been selected is also slated to join the partnership.
Because the partnership is so new, to date the two communities have spent much of their time just getting to know each other. Representatives of the Five Towns JCC and the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack visited Sofia in December and two representatives of Sofia spent a week here last month.
Rina Shkolnik, executive director of the Five Towns JCC, said the initiative is designed to strengthen and enhance Jewish life in all three participating communities.
“Most people in our community assume that — perhaps with the exception of some cities in Russia — East European Jewry has been reduced to a handful of elderly survivors,” Shkolnik said. “Therefore our community needs to learn about, and be inspired by, the courageous and exciting efforts of younger Jews to rebuild Jewish life in the highly assimilated and intermarried Jewish community in Sofia.”
Defying tremendous obstacles since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, Sofia has created a thriving JCC that serves 3,500 of 4,500 Jews in the city, according to Shkolnik. The community has also made great strides toward becoming more self-sustaining. For example, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee now only provides 40 percent of the funding for the JCC. But the levels of Jewish education and organizational knowledge are not yet strong enough to enable the community to stand on its own.
At the same time that the Five Towns JCC has been developing a connection with the Jews of Sofia, the Suffolk Y has begun running a mentoring project for Sofia’s Jewish community under the auspices of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers.
“We want to give them administrative and board leadership training and to help teach them what Jewish communities look like in other places,” said Joel Block, the Suffolk Y’s executive director.
Block pointed out that Sofia has only one synagogue and that it follows Orthodox practice.
“Almost no one attends, yet the community protects its existence as a symbol and ideal of a religious tradition that exists as communal memory,” he said. “A remnant of a tradition handed down from Sinai, and somehow lost in the wilderness of south Eastern Europe. And still, in spite of the lack of reinforcing religious institutions and with a high intermarriage rate, the Bulgarian Jews remain connected as a Jewish community.
“During our time with their leadership we were inspired by their strength and involvement. We witnessed their dedication and commitment, even as they long for a mechanism to express their inherent connection to a concept of Jewish peoplehood that exists in their hopes and dreams.”
Maxim Deltchev, 23, one of the two Sofia Jewish leaders who were here last month, said the experience was an eye-opener.
“For me, it was a whole different perspective to see Jewish life here,” he said.
Ida Aladjem, 25, the other Sofia representative who works at the JCC in Sofia, said she was particularly impressed “with the diversity of programs [offered at the Five Towns JCC] — programs for infants 3 months old to 96-year-olds.”
Shkolnik pointed out that it was not until the collapse of Communism that the Jews of Bulgaria were once again able to begin living as Jews. The first Jewish summer camp did not open until 1993.
“Mostly it was the elderly who brought their grandchildren,” Shkolnik said, referring to the synagogue, the JCC and the summer camp. “They had remembered what being Jewish was all about. But because of Communism, they were not able to raise their own children as Jews.”
Aladjem, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is not, said it was her grandfather who took her to the Jewish camp.
“He was active in the Jewish community and sang in the choir,” she said, adding that at his request her sister “was invited to visit a BBYO [youth group] chapter in Sofia that came into existence in 1997.”
Deltchev, whose mother is Jewish but whose father is not, said he remembers his grandmother taking him to a poetry reading when he was a child in order to meet Jewish writers.
“The Jewish community has started programs based on Jewish identity,” Aladjem said. “It’s our generation that is trying to develop this.”
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