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.
Mila Stojanovic got her first taste of Judaism in her grandma’s Sephardic kitchen: savory pastilles, matza pies and an egg dish that she “cooked for three days.” But there was little talk of other traditions.
With the loss of faith after the Holocaust, and the suppression of religion in former Yugoslavia under communism, “the only thing we had was Jewish cuisine,” says Stojanovic, 30, who was born in Bonn, Germany and grew up in Belgrade, Serbia in a mixed family: Her mother is Jewish, and father Serbian Orthodox Christian.
Today, Stojanovic is Executive Director of the Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS); she seeks advice from her predecessors and from Yesod, which offers support for Jewish community professionals in Europe.
Her journey to this point is “a very typical story” for Jews from former communist countries. It starts with curiosity about roots.
As children, Stojanovic and her sister were more familiar with their father’s Christian faith, even though their maternal grandfather had enrolled them in the local Jewish community at birth.
“The Jewish community invited us for some activities,” she recalls. By the time she turned 11, she had become “very curious, and this was when they explained why they were inviting me: Parts of our family are Jewish. Back then I did not really understand what it means.”
Eventually, Stojanovic attended the Szarvas international Jewish camp in Hungary, a program of JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. It changed her life.
At Szarvas “we built our Jewish identity,” she says. “It was especially important for Jews from eastern European countries…. For almost every person who becomes an engaged young professional, the starting point was the Szarvas international camp.”
Stojanovic herself took that track: She became a counselor at the camp and in 2008 started working at the Belgrade Jewish community’s Center for Informal Education, as coordinator of children and family activities.
At the same time, she earned a BA and master’s degree in teacher education from the University of Belgrade. In 2016 she was named coordinator for educational programs at Haver Srbija, an NGO in Belgrade that fights prejudice and fosters intercultural dialogue.
She had come full circle: “The NGO was established by people who grew up in Szarvas, including [its co-founder and executive director] Sonja Vilicic, who was always my role model growing up,” Stojanovic says. It was at Haver Srbija that she realized she “wanted to stay involved working for Jewish causes.”
Today she is far from home, working in Brussels as the Executive Director of EUJS, the umbrella organization for 36 national student unions in 36 countries.
In Belgium, she is more keenly aware of the anti-Semitism facing Jews across Europe. “It hits me much more since I started working at EUJS,” because the problem was less prevalent in Serbia.
Yet Stojanovic is “positive about the future of Jewish life in Europe. I do believe the diaspora should always exist and be much stronger.” She advises Jews everywhere to “be comfortable in your identity. Especially young people: Fight for your space, claim it.”
Stojanovic has set an example, claiming her Jewish space – and taking her mother there with her.
When Stojanovic first entered Jewish communal life, “my mother was very scared, because there was this stigma still in the family that we shouldn’t say openly who we are… ‘You never know how it can come back to you, look at what happened in the Shoah. Be careful.’”
When Stojanovic was working at the Center for Informal Education, she asked her mother to drive her three hours outside of Belgrade to a seminar. She registered her mother to attend. “I said, ‘You can go home if you want, if you don’t like it.’ And I told my friends, ‘My mother will come, and you have the task of entertaining her.’”
Her mother stayed, meeting Stojanovic’s friends and eventually their mothers. “Today, they are good friends. Today, mom comes to the community; she goes to most of the seminars; and she even did Israeli dancing for a few years.”
“And my mother is making these Sephardic dishes her mother made,” says Stojanovic. “We have my grandma’s cookbook that we use today, in her own handwriting.”