In Bulgaria, Charity and Care In and Out of the Community

In the absence of fully-functioning state institutions, the branches and programs of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have become all the more important.

By Liam Hoare

The healthcare system in Bulgaria is inadequate. Interviewing young medical students earlier this year, Mariya Petkova writing for Al Jazeera discovered a system riddled with “corruption, nepotism, dysfunction and poor facilities”. The lowest salaries for doctors in the European Union drives young medical candidates out of the country – Bulgaria loses 500 to 600 doctors to other nations each year. Nine hospitals closed between 2009 and 2013 and residents in rural areas must travel for hours in search of care and treatment.

In the absence of fully-functioning state institutions, the branches and programs of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) have become all the more important. Both the organizational structure of the community and the close bonds between its members mean that, in many ways, the Jewish community becomes a state within a state, with the means to help those not only in the community but outside it, too.

“Two years ago, in the northwestern part of Bulgaria, we started traveling in the countryside and examining the eyes of children from underprivileged families,” Alek Oscar, President of the Jewish Community of Sofia and a trained neuro-ophthalmologist, explained to me in a meeting back in June with other members of the community. 90 percent of school-age children are not seen by an optician in Bulgaria. “If you miss a lazy eye, for example, and you don’t treat it early it becomes untreatable after the age of nine or ten. 5 percent of people in the general society have amblyopia.

“So far, we have examined more than 5,000 children and donated more than 500 pairs of glasses. It has become a popular project in Bulgaria and now we are partnering with the University Hospital here in Sofia. Last autumn, we did a similar project here in the Syrian refugee camps. We examined all the children in the refugee camps and provided food and medical supplies. Now, we are working to develop another project with the refugees.”

Tikkum olam projects such as these benefit the country at-large but they also have the effect of aiding the community itself. “The intent is to help the needy here in Bulgaria but also to empower the young people in the community and help them to be active. It is also important, in times of economic and political turmoil, that the people of Bulgaria see us not just taking care of ourselves but doing work to help everyone in the country,” Oscar concluded.

Vasil Haikin is one of the young people who participated in this project. “I became much more involved in the community after I started work on this project. After that, I became the medical coordinator of Shalom, providing examinations for members of the community. New members are coming to the community and paying the membership fee because of the medical examinations,” he told me.

“Shalom” operates a small clinic inside Beit Am, one of the two centers of the Jewish community in Sofia, the other being Beit Shalom (which houses the Ariel Job Training Center and the Gan Balagan kindergarten, among other projects). The Mazal Medical Clinic on one level seeks to plug the gaps in the Bulgarian healthcare system, with visiting doctors offering specific examinations – cardiology, gynecology, ophthalmology – while older members of the community can get their blood pressure tested regularly and so on. Beit Am also runs a kosher dining room that serves around sixty people at least one hot meal each day, a facility that also enables older people who often live in isolation to meet and interact with one another.

Caring for the elderly remains an essential competent of “Shalom” and the JDC’s work in terms of fulfilling a need that the Bulgarian state cannot meet. Fourteen years ago, motivated by cases of older people living alone, in need of full-time medical supervision, the community founded an old age home. In this home, there now resides around twenty elderly people, in a facility that offers twenty-four hour medical care, kosher meals, art workshops, and daily exercises.

On my visit to the home I met Sophie Danon, a pillar of Sofia’s Jewish community who lived through the Holocaust and today among other things keeps up and writes poetry in Ladino. Five years after she began giving lectures at the home on Jewish tradition and culture – “learning along with the people she was teaching,” she told me – she had an accident in which she broke two vertebrae, and at that point elected to move into the home instead of the hospital for her rehabilitation.

What the home offers is a communal environment that its residents simply would not have if the facility did not exist. Sophie Danon was keen to show me the trees in the common garden that they are all able to access, donated by their partner community, the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. On Erev Shabbat, Sophie lights the candles and makes sure to buy sweets or a cake for everyone in the home. “The residents of the home share one another’s pains and one another’s joys,” she said.

As well as institutional charitable and welfare programming, there are attempts to encourage a culture of charitable giving among community members – something which still does not really exist in Bulgaria’s post-communist society. Robert Mezan came up with the Tzekadah box – an unmissable oblong container shaped like a gold bar that is intended as a receptacle not just for spare change but more conscious acts of donation.

“It is meant to serve as an educational tool to teach people about tzekadah,” Mezan told me over lunch. “Buying the box is the first act of tzekadah” and keeping it in the home “enables charitable donations outside of the synagogue.” Since the intent to not just to raise money but alter people’s perceptions, “the principle of the project that the act of donation is more important than the amount the person donates.”

As such, the amount a household donates through their Tzekadah box each month is not recorded and not known – the contents of all the boxes are pooled centrally indiscriminately. So far, 150 boxes have been sold and distributed around the community, raising money towards among things children who could not afford to go to summer camp and a child who needed to go to Germany in order to seek medical treatment.