Bulgarian Teens Rescue Purim Carnival

Sofia Carnival 1
photo courtesy The Jewish Agency

Few programs can draw people to Jewish life like a Purim carnival. Indeed, there is a timeless charm to the classic scene: teenagers making homemade games for costumed kids running from station with fists full of tickets and faces speckled with hamentaschen crumbs. So when a few dozen teens from the newly invigorated Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Sofia, Bulgaria – led by their Jewish Agency Shaliach – learned that this year’s carnival could be scaled back, they rose to the occasion.

“The Jewish community told us that without us, they couldn’t have as large a carnival,” said Emil Magrisso, The Jewish Agency’s Shaliach to Hashomer Hatzair in Bulgaria. “Our counselors provided essential help.”
And Purim just wouldn’t be the same without one.

For the last 50 years, the Jewish population in Bulgaria has numbered approximately 5,000, with half the population living in Sofia and the other half in smaller cities, such as Pleven. Though relatively few of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, 90 percent had immigrated to Israel by 1952. While many intermarried, most Jews still in Bulgaria remained committed Zionists and members of the Jewish community over the years. But more recently, Bulgarian Jews’ engagement in Jewish life has been on the decline. According to Magrisso, only 1,500 Bulgarians declared themselves Jewish in the latest national census. And, as religious observance ebbs, celebrating cultural Jewish events – like Purim – is more critical than ever.

Several hundred Jewish children, teens and adults came to Sofia’s Jewish Cultural Center this year to attend the Purim carnival. Attendees had the chance to hear the Purim story read aloud and shake their groggers at Haman’s name, to eat hamentaschen and play games of chance (including the popular beanbag toss, throw a ball at a stack of cans, and the balloon shave) at the approximately 40 carnival booths, one-third of which were built and staffed by Hashomer’s teen members. Other organizations, including BBYO and Hadraha, also helped JDC and Shalom, which organized the event.

“This is the only way for people to feel connected,” Magrisso said. “If there are no holiday celebrations, there is nothing to make people feel Jewish.”

Magrisso grew up in Pleven and moved to Israel as a high school student, with the help of The Jewish Agency. Recently, he returned to Bulgaria for a three-year commitment to help breathe life into Bulgaria’s Hashomer Hatzair.

It’s an uphill battle. Bulgaria is from the poorest countries in the European Union. Since the latest economic crisis began, many young Jews have left to study abroad and not returned. Those who remain in Bulgaria have shown little enthusiasm for the organized Jewish community. Magrisso believes that a thriving youth movement is the key to reversing this trend and to securing Bulgaria’s Jewish future. When he arrived for his emissary service two years ago, Hashomer had fewer than 20 active members. With Magrisso’s help and perseverance, membership has since grown to 70 teens, and the Pleven native believes that by the end of the year, there will be more than 100 teens participating in Jewish events.

Magrisso has worked closely with Hashomer members, developing their skills as leaders, activists and members of the broader community. His primary strategy is to empower each member to develop his or her programmatic ideas and then tap the older teens to help bring those ideas to life by managing the logistics, making volunteer assignments and planning the publicity.

Magrisso believes this combination of mentorship and personal accomplishment will drive long-term commitment and affiliation.

“By the time they reach the 12th grade, these youth members have become highly-capable project leaders,” Magrisso said. “[Hashomer] is a Jewish group where older youths work with younger members on developing their own ideas and stay with them through the process; that is something that develops long-term connectedness.”

That, and a good pie in the face.

courtesy The Jewish Agency