[Editor’s note: Maxim was interviewed and this post written prior to the beginning of the current pandemic.]
By Toby Axelrod
[Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile 10 Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.]
Maxim Delchev’s bar mitzvah went like this: “When I was 13, my grandmother brought me to the synagogue on a Friday night and left me in the hall and said she would pick me up after the service. And when she returned she said, ‘Now you are an adult.’”
Today, as educational director of “Shalom,” the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria, Delchev has many other b’not mitzvah behind him – those of “all the kids we are teaching.”
Indeed, the offerings for young Jews in Bulgaria are much richer today than when he was growing up. “As in most of Eastern Europe, Jewish life was cut off because of communism,” says Delchev, who was born in Sofia in May 1986 and has lived there all his life. “I was part of the first generation that grew up in the new, reviving Jewish community.”
Many of the community’s 5,000 to 7,000 members trace their roots back to Spain.
Starting when he was three, his grandmother would bring him to the Jewish community center in Sofia. He enjoyed the food there, but the programs were “mostly for adults: politics and poetry readings and things that are not really interesting for a young kid.”
“One day she [his grandmother] told me, ‘You are going to [Bulgarian Jewish] summer camp.’ And I was really afraid it was going to be boring. … I imagined it would be [like eating in] a good restaurant for two weeks. And it was the opposite. The food was bad but I had the greatest time ever. And that is what sparked me.”
Eventually he became a counselor, or madrich, at the camp. But he still did not see Jewish communal work in his future.
Both he and his parents felt he “should get a good education and find a meaningful job. It was seen as more of child’s play to be in the Jewish community.”
So he studied public relations. But he took a break and returned to the Jewish community for a year “just to get myself doing something fulfilling. That was 13 years ago.” He’s been at “Shalom” ever since – except for one year spent in the experiential educators program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, through a Yesod Jewish Learning Scholarship. “It really helped me to understand more about my Jewishness and why I should be back doing more for my community,” he says.
“Shalom” is an umbrella for all aspects of Jewish life in Bulgaria, including a JCC and a new Jewish school – the first in the country since the end of World War II. Delchev chooses programming based on whether he himself would want to take part.
For a long time, Jewishness in Sofia was someone coming from abroad – a Jewish educator or presenter who would then go back home. “I am trying to have a community that is self-sustainable: not only financially but also with professionals and resources. So we can produce knowledge, practice by ourselves and move forward.”
As in many parts of the former communist bloc, 90 percent of community members are in mixed marriages. The community accepts anyone who is Jewish according to Israel’s Law of Return, and makes compromises so as to be more inclusive without challenging halacha, or Jewish law.
For example, in their bar and bat mitzvah program “we teach everyone together for a year, and after that we do a ceremony for everyone on a Sunday, where they are reading from books. It is a big community celebration in the synagogue.”
The celebration doesn’t challenge Jewish tradition, says Delchev, because it doesn’t take place on Shabbat and participants read from books rather than the Torah scroll. “But we are including everyone. We make them feel connected and don’t tell anyone ‘You are not allowed to do that.’”
No, Eastern European Jewry is not dying, Delchev tells his friends in the west. Bulgaria’s community stands together with other minorities against discrimination, and has allies in its annual march of tolerance, as well. “All over Europe there is not only a Jewish revival; today there are also stable Jewish communities with different approaches to Jewishness.”
And his own journey, which started with that “bar mitzvah,” so long ago, continues. Recently, he gave a presentation at Limmud Bulgaria: “My mother and father were in the audience and learning from me. And that gives me a great sense of satisfaction.”