An Orthodox Rabbi in Bulgaria’s Secular Community

The Sofia Synagogue, a building of the Sephardic community, was opened in 1909.
The Sofia Synagogue, a building of the Sephardic community, was opened in 1909.

by Liam Hoare

Being a rabbi in Bulgaria, and particularly an Orthodox one, presents certain challenges. The vast majority of the Jewish community is secular – happily and securely so. Through the central institutions of the community as well as other Jewish and Zionist programmes like Minyanim and Hashomer Hatzair, there are a multitude of ways to explore, express, and strengthen Jewish identity without the need to set foot in the synagogue.

The prevalence of intermarriage in the community also means that while members are Jewish according to the Law of Return, oftentimes they are not according to halacha. I discussed these matters and more with Rabbi Aaron Zerbib, sitting down with him at the grand Sofia Synagogue over which he presides. Completed in 1909, this neo-Moorish building in the centre of town is the third-largest synagogue in Europe, and one of only two functioning synagogues remaining in Bulgaria.

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Who comes to services on Friday nights?

On Friday night, we have a mixture of people, not a consistent group, and on average we have a minyan. We have three or four religious people who come every week, and the rest are not so religious but they’re learning. We have a new conversion programme for around fifty people which is starting soon. Once or twice a month, we do a Shabbaton with around 30 to 40 people and in the week we have a morning minyan. During the week, we find mainly older people over the age of sixty come.

The community here in Bulgaria is very intermarried and very secular. How do you deal with that?

We have the halacha that says for a minyan you have to have people who are Jewish, that in order to get married to have to be Jewish. It’s stood for three-thousand years and we can’t do anything about it. The question is, When you have this halacha, how do you approach people? and here in Bulgaria, I think it needs a very open and flexible approach, especially to conversion, and to events because people who are not Jewish also come to the events.

Everything in open but in terms of the halacha, it is strict, and I think today Bulgaria is a good example where you don’t need Reform or Conservative to be modern, understanding and open-minded towards gay people, people who are intermarried. We are very open-minded towards other people.

But the fact of the matter is, if you want to bring people into Orthodox Judaism

Jewish people or non-Jewish people?

Well they are Jewish but not according to halacha.

But that means they’re not Jewish.

You have to be honest. Either they’re Jewish or they’re not Jewish. Now, they can come to activities, they can register as a member of the community – that’s great. They can have anything they want within their secular life. They don’t need to change their secular life and they can call themselves Jewish. But are they Jewish? For sure not. The halacha is the halacha.

But the Law of Return would classify them as Jewish, they could make aliya.

Good, so they can make aliya.

Give me an example of a way in which you would want them to be Jewish?

Say, for example, you have a situation where a man who is Jewish according to halacha wants to marry his partner who is Jewish by the Law of Return but not according to halacha?

I can’t accept that.

But then you meet the wall and, therefore, the intent to inject Orthodoxy into a community that is secular will ultimately fail.

But we’re not talking about secular Jews, we’re talking about non-Jews.

They consider themselves to be Jewish.

Okay, anyone can say that. But in the end, if you want to do something that’s religious, it has to be done according to religious law.

You’ve been the rabbi here for one year. When you arrived, what is it that you wanted to achieve?

First and foremost, to give people in Bulgaria – inside and outside of the community – access to anything that has to do with religion: brit mila, bar mitzvah, lectures about religion, helping people with their understanding of religion, kashrut. For anything that has to do with religion, I will be there for them. That was my first goal.

How successful do you think you’ve been?

I thought I would have more access to the youth and that it would be faster to develop a relationship between myself and the young people but I see that it takes time. I see them one, two, three, four times, but only by the fifth time do we really connect and have a conversation.

Also, I thought it would be politically easier. The community is divided into territories. The leaders of the community are not in one hundred percent agreement with each other all the time. They all have different visions about what should happen in the community and sometimes they clash and you have to choose a side. I’m not a politician, I’m a rabbi, but a rabbi has to be a politician, too.

Do you think you have the means to build up an organisation?

I’ll be honest with you: not right now. The synagogue barely holds itself financially. Shalom and the Joint help but, as a unit, the religious council doesn’t have any money. The fee for being a member of the synagogue is [5 euros] a year. It’s nothing. The people here are poor. At the moment, we rely on the Joint to keep the lights on. But it’s an issue we’re working on, we’re trying to make ourselves financially independent by receiving donations, receiving help. If you want to get financial support, you have to go outside of Bulgaria because it’s hard to find sources of funding here, people don’t have it.

[Editor’s note: The religious council also receives income from the entrance fees it charges to enter the synagogue as a tourist, currently 1 euro per person.]

What do you see as the future of the community?

I think the community is at a crossroads as it relates to understanding how to approach their identity and strengthening it. I believe this community is on the right path, they’re going further, they’re becoming closer to god. The young generation is much more advanced than the middle generation, meaning, the younger they get, the more they’re closer to god. For a rabbi, it’s a dream, and I believe in ten to twenty years we will see a lot more observant, traditional Jews in Bulgaria. But, our problem is always Israel, because the minute they become religious, they go to Israel. It’s a problem in a lot of communities, it’s a loop.

But if this is a process that will take five, ten, or twenty years, for how long to you intend to stay here?

First of all, it’s not up to me – it’s up to the community and my wife. The question will then be, if they want me, will there be a way for my children to be educated in a way that reflects my lifestyle? For now, they’re still small, it’s not so much of an issue, but soon it will be an issue.

Believe me, since the start of the year, I’ve had a lot of breakthroughs that I did not foresee. What exactly will happen, only god knows.

This interview has been edited and condensed.