Rebirthing Bulgaria’s Jewish Community

By Sharon Rosen Leib

In matrilineal Judaism, Jewish women birth Jewish children. In Bulgaria, young Jewish women are rebirthing Jewish communal life. 

Bulgaria’s two-millennia-old Jewish community lay dormant between 1944 and 1989 while the ruling Communist regime imposed a strict secular ideology forbidding religious practice. When the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) returned to Bulgaria in 1990, after being expelled by the Soviets in 1949, it began resuscitating the country’s culturally and financially impoverished Jewish community. The JDC continues to support and guide Bulgaria’s 6,000 Jews through an unprecedented renaissance.

Julia Dandalova, JDC’s 38-year-old country director for Bulgaria, leads the charge for Jewish renewal with an irresistible combination of buoyant energy, motherly concern and charming English translations of Bulgarian folk wisdom. While leading a tour of the Sofia Jewish Community Center’s preschool, she repeatedly apologized for the messy classrooms. Ironic, since the preschool’s name Gan Balagan is Hebrew for messy or chaotic. And messy chaos is to be expected when a cadre of young Jewish women preschool teachers ready their classrooms for the start of a new school year. The oily aroma of fresh paint, still wet in patches, filled the air as the women chatted in Bulgarian while dusting desks, sorting books and hanging photos of their young students on classroom doors.

The large classrooms looked fresh and modern with sleek, utilitarian cabinetry and modular, pint-sized furnishings. 

“All of the designing was done by a volunteer parent who studied in Milan,” Dandalova says with pride. 

Sofia’s Jewish community built the center that houses the preschool in 1932, directly across from Bulgaria’s landmark synagogue. After the fall of Communism, the community lacked the resources to keep the JCC’s doors open and was almost forced to demolish the building. The JDC came to the rescue, offering interest-free loans that enabled the community to keep this essential center.

“No one knew what to do when Bulgaria became a democracy. Most people were unemployed because government-supported companies no longer existed. The JCC became a lifesaving place – our safe zone,” Dandalova says.

Gan Balagan, the first Jewish preschool in Sofia in more than half a century, opened its doors in 2010 and currently enrolls 80 children. The building also houses a Hebrew day school and the headquarters of Shalom, the umbrella organization supporting Bulgaria’s Jewish communities.

This hive of Jewish activity was inconceivable during Dandalova’s youth in Communist-era Sofia. She knew nothing about her Jewish identity until 1990 when, as a 12-year-old, her grandfather brought her to the JCC’s first Sunday school class. She imagined it would be an entire morning of boring backgammon, the only activity her grandparents engaged in at the center prior to Communism’s fall. When she arrived, she was happy to see a lot of her friends and cousins assembled to begin their journey of forging a Jewish identity.

Dandalova believes the successful resurgence of Bulgaria’s Jewish community stems from the pride Bulgarian Jews take in their country’s acceptance of them. Bulgaria was the only European country that protected its Jews from deportation during the Holocaust. Bulgaria’s King Boris III joined forces with Germany in 1941 rather than fight the Nazi troops amassing at his borders. At the time, Bulgaria’s Jewish community numbered 50,000.

As a German ally, Bulgaria occupied Macedonia and Thrace (Northern Greece) and agreed to deport 20,000 Jews to meet Hitler’s demands. King Boris complied by rounding up 13,000 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace who were deported to Treblinka. This left him 7,000 short. Under tremendous pressure from the Nazi regime to fulfill the promised quota, he attempted to round up the Jews of Bulgaria proper.

The Bulgarian government’s move to begin deporting Jews caused a public outcry. Prominent clergymen from the Bulgarian Orthodox church, journalists, physicians, lawyers, politicians and many rank-and-file Bulgarians refused to turn against their Jewish friends and neighbors. A priest threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks rather than allow a trainload of Jews to be deported.

King Boris III capitulated. He told Hitler that he needed Bulgaria’s Jews to construct rail lines and perform other wartime-related hard labor. Instead of sending Jews to their deaths, the government relocated them from Bulgaria’s big cities to labor camps in the countryside. The Jews lived restricted lives and were forced to wear yellow stars, but they all survived the war.

“I think this made Bulgaria’s Jewish community stronger and more positive than others,” Dandalova says.

After WWII ended, 90 percent of Bulgaria’s Jews emigrated to Israel.

“Our Jewish community was always very Zionist. After the war, the Jews believed going to Israel was their best option.”

The Jews who remained in Bulgaria believed in Communism.

“They thought the Bulgarians helped us so we should stay and help them. They ended up being disappointed. Everyone expected life behind the iron curtain to be better than it was,” Dandalova says. Her grandparents were amongst the Jews who stayed.

“I didn’t know much about practicing Judaism until I became a mother. But I wanted to raise my kids Jewish.” So she made sure they got a Jewish education. When Dandalova’s 18-year-old son was 12, he read from the Torah and gave a drasha.

“I couldn’t enter a synagogue until I was 12, but my six-year-old daughter knows the recipe for challah and how to say the Shabbat prayers by heart.”

Dandalova sees a bright future for Bulgaria’s Jews as a new generation comes of age having actively participated in the community throughout their young lives.

San Diego native and UCLA graduate Maia Ferdman, 23, echoes her former office mate and friend Dandalova’s optimism about the future of Bulgaria’s Jewish community. She recently returned to Southern California after a year working in Bulgaria as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps/Fishel Fellow (co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles).

While in Bulgaria, Ferdman observed a session of Jewish family camp.

“The families celebrated Havdalah but the parents didn’t know the rituals so their kids showed them,” Ferdman remembers. The kids learned Jewish practice while attending Camp Semkovo, Bulgaria’s popular annual two-week, JCC-sponsored summer camp. “Bulgaria’s Jewish community is raising kids to be self-reliant Jews so they won’t have to depend on institutions – they’ll be able to develop Jewish life at home – something Jews didn’t know how to do under Communism.”

So who is teaching the Jewish children how to be Jewish? Ferdman attributes the revival of Jewish traditions to her young Bulgarian contemporaries. One of her close Bulgarian friends, 26-year-old Daria Melamed, learned Jewish practice and leadership skills as a camper at the JDC-operated Szarvas International Camp for Jewish teens in Hungary. Melamed put these skills to use as a counselor at the camp where she interacted with others her age and became engaged in the global Jewish world. What she learned from her peers inspired her to approach the JDC about sponsoring a Moishe House, an international project that provide young Jews an informal gathering place, in Sofia.

The doors opened two years ago with Melamed as one of three founding residents. Daria and her Moishe House cohort have devised innovative ways to make Judaism relevant and approachable to their peers such as hosting a hipster, sushi Seder last Pesach

“Moishe House is already a central part of Jewish life in Sofia – a hub that brings young adults together and one of the best ways to make friends,” Ferdman says. Recently, her Sofia Moishe House pals went all-out to help her prepare an American-style Thanksgiving dinner. “Daria drove me from grocery store to grocery store to find a turkey,” Ferdman said. Through camps, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) and Moishe House, Bulgaria’s young Jews have created a community that gives them a strong sense of belonging.

“The fact that young people are shaping the Jewish community says a lot about the future.  They are forward-looking, passionate and rising to the challenge of trying to innovate while staying true to tradition,” Ferdman says. She believes her generation in the United States can learn a lot from young Bulgarian women like Daria Melamed. 

“She has tremendous individual drive and a sense of responsibility to her community to pass Judaism on to the younger generation. We don’t take as much responsibility here because we don’t have to.”

Ferdman returned home with tremendous admiration and affection for her Bulgarian friends. 

“They became like family to me. I really miss them,” she says.

As a witness to and participant in the renaissance of Bulgaria’s Jewish community, Ferdman felt she did meaningful work. She and her Bulgarian contemporaries have helped rebirth a Jewish community that they hope continues to grow for generations to come. 

This article was originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal; reprinted with permission.