By Liam Hoare
No one does more for Jewish education in Serbia than Sonja Vili?i?. Born in Subotica in the northernmost part of the country, she has been engaged in informal Jewish education since she was sixteen. A graduate of the Melton Senior Educators Program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for almost ten years Vili?i? lived and worked in Budapest, including as the educational program director at the Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp. Back in Belgrade, Vili?i? is now involved in two important initiatives: Matara, a pan-European youth leadership training program held during Limmud in the United Kingdom; and Haver Srbija, an initiative to educate the wider Serbian public about Judaism.
I met Vili?i? for coffee on a Sunday morning in the restaurant of the Hotel Srbija. Located in the Šumice neighborhood of Belgrade, its boxed corners and prefabricated structure reveal its Yugoslav-era origins. I was fortunate that Vili?i? found the time to chat – that afternoon, she along with other members of Belgrade’s community were set to go to Sarajevo, where celebrations marking the 450th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina were about to begin. We talked about Matara and Haver Srbija, as well as Jewish education in Belgrade and knowledge of Judaism in Serbian society.
So best to start by telling me about Matara.
Matara is a program for young Jewish educators, activists, and volunteers that are involved in the Jewish community or Jewish organizations. What we’re trying to do with that program is to increase the level of knowledge. What we realized is that they have partial knowledge – I’m talking about central and eastern Europe – because they get their Jewish education in summer camps. They don’t have a fuller picture; they have knowledge here and there and we just wanted them to have basic knowledge of different topics. We don’t go very deep into the topics – we just want them to be on solid ground.
Matara is running for the fifth year this year and it turned out to be very good and very helpful for the participants, and the great thing is that it takes place during Limmud so they have a chance to experience a very big Jewish community. For many of them, Limmud is the biggest gathering of Jews they will ever experience. Sometimes, there are more Jews at Limmud than in their local community. I think it’s very motivating and inspiring to see that there are people there learning across all ages.
How did you come to decide that the best way to do it was to bring people to Limmud and not at a conference in Budapest, for example?
Limmud is a hub of Jewish learning and this is what we wanted to show people, to emphasize the importance of continuous learning. I hope participants go out with the message that they don’t necessarily have to go to a seminar in order to learn, that they can do it at home but themselves and they should continue learning all the time. I think Limmud offers that perspective.
Do you have examples of people who have participated in Matara and gone onto leadership positions back home in their communities?
Yes, but many of them are already involved because we are searching for people who have some experience already. In the process of application, we ask people, ‘How do you expect to be involved in community life in the next three years?’ because it is important to invest in people who dream to be involved. They have to have some experience, some training: in Hillel, in Moishe House, in the Szarvas camp.
What do you think participants get out of meeting other young leaders from central and eastern Europe?
People become a lot calmer when they realize that they have similar problems, that they are not the only ones struggling. Usually, it’s about recruitment, engaging people in the long term, difficulty with the older establishment in the Jewish community, financial aspects. They realize they’re not the only ones. They exchange programs, they exchange ideas, they stay in touch. An exchange of ideas should be one of the results of any international gathering for young people. Europe is very small so it’s important that we meet and that we’re aware of other communities.
Have you found that the problem of gaps in Jewish knowledge is a greater or lesser issue in some countries compared to others?
It’s hard to say. We have participants from Germany where the community is mostly Russian-speaking. We have Italians also who, in spite of the fact that it’s a traditional Jewish community and have Jewish schools and youth movements that are very developed, still you don’t get the big picture – you get parts. So for them, as for everybody else, we try to frame things somehow.
What is the quality of Jewish education like here in Belgrade?
I would say very low. There is no formal Jewish education – no kindergarten, no Jewish school – because the community is so small. I feel like over the years the motivation to learn, to organize to learn at home, has reduced. You cannot learn from seminar to seminar – you need to work alone and I feel that this is not present anymore.
There is no real investment in young people and it’s irresponsible on the Jewish community’s side because if you want someone to educate community members, at least make it competitive to waitressing. The community doesn’t have a vision and doesn’t know how to lead these people, what it wants from the community in ten years in Jewish education. There is no plan and young leaders are left alone and become demotivated.
I’m also interested in the program that you run called Haver Srbija. Could you tell me about it?
Haver Srjiba is basically Judaism for non-Jews. What we are trying to do is introduce Jewish history, culture, and tradition to non-Jews to break prejudice, stereotype, and anti-Semitism. Our major target group is schoolchildren so we go to schools in order to give Jewish education, workshops on Jewish topics, and study of Jewish texts. We also offer Holocaust education because it has just started to develop in Serbia and teachers don’t know how to teach it. They don’t have the time to teach it in their schedule and they don’t have the skills.
We’re also working on minority rights in Serbia. Serbians are somehow empathic towards Jews. They love Israel, because they think we have the same destiny. Of course there is anti-Semitism and prejudice but generally they want to hear about your culture. So, I want to use that opportunity to involve another minorities that are in a worse condition in Serbia: the Roma minority, the LGBT minority. As a Jewish organization, we need to work together with other minorities and make the statement that, yes, in our community we have LGBT people and we are friends with Roma people. We need to discuss this and we need to open up.
So there is empathy towards Jews but also a lack of knowledge. Is that because religious education in Serbia is mainly Orthodox?
For the past three years, there has been religious education [in schools]. It’s something quite new. But, the religious education depends upon what kids you have in your school. There are Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim students, but in Belgrade there are a maximum of 3,000 Jews, and how many of them are schoolchildren? If you don’t have Jews, you won’t receive a Jewish education. There is no representation of Judaism.
What kind of base of knowledge do you have to work from?
Really nothing. With schoolkids, they might know what a Star of David is; they will know that it’s a Jewish symbol but they won’t know what to call it, and of all the Jewish symbols, that would be the only one they’d recognize. When you start talking about Jewish holidays and Hanukkah, they might know about that because of South Park and Friends – which is very interesting. They know about Moses and David but they know because it’s part of their learning of the Old and New Testament in religious education classes. You just need to tell him that it’s part of Jewish history. So really, we’re starting from zero – not just kids but teachers as well.