BBYO’s Ambassadors to Bulgaria

by Rachel Mitchell

I didn’t go on BBYO Passport’s Ambassadors to Bulgaria trip to get inspired; I didn’t go to learn. I went because I couldn’t go to camp and I needed something to do. I remember the night before I left, crying that I had to go to Bulgaria instead of camp, because I thought that I’d never have a life changing experience like the one I had last summer.

When we landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, we walked towards the exit of the terminal and suddenly heard screaming and shouting. The trip participants looked at each other, confused. As we approached the crowd, we heard a chant – “AZA BBG BBYO.” We couldn’t help smiling as 30 Eastern European teens cheered us on.

We soon learned that 10 different countries were represented in our mix: USA, Canada, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. Did you know there were Jews in all of these places? I sure didn’t.

We quickly began to form an international community. Even though we spoke over 15 languages, we bonded over our shared Jewish identity.

One afternoon, we had a program about Jewish heritage. A European teen mentioned that his family moved from Israel to Bulgaria. When asked what his friends thought about it, he replied that “my friends didn’t know I was from Israel. They didn’t even know I was Jewish and, if they did, they’d beat me up.” I looked at him in surprise. To me, that was so foreign. Sure, my friends joked around, but I felt safe and proud to be Jewish where I live. To clarify, most of my fellow travelers don’t live in anti-Semitic communities, but some do.

As the trip continued, it became clear that the Jewish community and life I know in the US is not the same across the world. When we cleaned up the JCC and synagogue in Plovdiv – the second biggest city in Bulgaria – to us, it was a couple of hours of community service; to them, it was a gift for which they will be forever thankful. We celebrated Shabbat at the synagogue in Plovdiv, a traditional Sephardic synagogue; it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. In Plovdiv, they don’t have a rabbi. The congregants rotate leading the service and, some nights, they don’t have enough to make a minyan. The man leading services began to tear up because he was speechless that, for the first time in a while, the synagogue was full and alive with not just song, but also with the spirit of 10 different countries, their traditions and melodies.

As we were leaving the synagogue, I noticed a woman standing by the doorway collecting the men’s kippot. I asked my friend who regularly attended the synagogue why she did. He said that, if she didn’t, they’d never have enough. As part of the trip, we brought Judaica and donations for children. I offered to donate the kippot I brought and my friend offered a Havdallah candle. He threw his arms around me, thanked me repeatedly, called people from his synagogue and posted the following translation in the community Facebook group:

Dear parents and friends:

One of the main ideals of Judaism and of the whole Jewish nation is that all Israel (all the Jews) is responsible each for other or in Hebrew “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh”. Today we received one incredible donation “tzedakkah” of 15 kippah and a havdallah candle. The donations were from three American girls, who love the Jewishness and of course our Plovdiv. We are thankful, that they leave a spark of themselves in our community, because isn’t easy to love something that you barely know, but we know that in BBYO this is something very common and usual. Please like this status in a sign of gratitude and appreciation, that there are people, who maybe are strangers for the most of our community, but they still think for us. “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh”.

To me, it was 15 kippot that I wouldn’t have used anyway. To him and this community, it was a symbol of Jewish life and continuity. BBYO Plovdiv can now hold Shabbat services because they have kippot of their own. This little donation meant so much to my friend, and it has opened my eyes to the differences between my Jewish experience in America and those of my friends across the world.

After each day, we gathered and reflected. The discussion always began the same: “How was your day?” The level of understanding and intelligence that poured out of everyone’s mouths was outstanding. This was no ordinary trip; each day was a new lesson, a new opportunity to make a difference.

Towards the end of the trip, we were asked, “What now?” Now that the trip is over, what are we going to do? This is when I understood my role in being a part of the global Jewish community. I learned that BBYO Northern Region East: DC Council sends $10,000 a year to support BBYO Bulgaria through BBYO’s International Service Fund (ISF). I learned that, after BBYO’s International Convention (IC) in February 2013, the underground synagogue in Turkey held its first outdoor BBYO service because the teens who attended IC were so inspired.

For many Jewish teens across small communities in Europe, these BBYO events are all that connects them to Judaism. We are their only hope to revitalize their Jewish identity, which has been stolen after years of assimilation and persecution.

The last night of the trip, I found the youngest member of our trip, a 13 year old European boy, sitting by the balcony sobbing. I ran over to him and asked what was wrong. In broken English, he said he was okay and not to worry. I asked him, “Do you need a hug?” Without a second thought, he stood up and threw his arms around me and began to cry again. This little boy, only 13 years old, felt the connection. He shared a story of how a couple of years ago, one of the Europeans asked his American friend to wear a kippa for him in America because he cannot do so in his country. To this day, that American young man still proudly wears his kippa for his friend.

For the teens from North America, this was without a doubt a life changing and eye opening experience. But, for some teens, the trip, the lessons learned and the lasting connections that are formed are community changing. These teenagers, though thousands of miles away, need our help. What can we do? We can fundraise and connect, making them feel part of the global Jewish peoplehood. Now home, in the United States, I am inspired and ready to do whatever we can to help the international globalization effort.

In BBYO, teens believe that we can make a difference. After going to Bulgaria, I know we can change the world.

Rachel Mitchell, 16 years old, attends Plano West Senior High School in Dallas, Texas.