Jewish group in Balkans looks to youth

"We are about trying to create a new model and a new network for Jews."

balkans 88 (photo credit: )
balkans 88
(photo credit: )
The beach club scene was in full swing: people dancing barefoot, flirting and ordering rounds of cool drinks. Welcome to a gathering on reviving Jewish culture in the Balkans. "We try to think young. It all depends on young people to make it happen," said Yair Kamaisky, one of the directors of a program to rebuild Jewish culture and religious life across Europe's most unstable corner. The effort - overseen by an international Jewish group - is one of many campaigns to assist struggling Jewish communities in the former Eastern bloc and other nations such as Greece and Turkey. But the style of this program sets a new course by aiming at a specific demographic - young and influential professionals, or as one participant described it, "yuppies with yarmulkes." "These are the people who have the energy and interest to lead a Jewish revival," Kamaisky said during a three-day meeting in May at a seaside resort village in northern Greece. It was a mix of Spring Break, spiritual retreat, cultural immersion and high-energy networking. The music blasting at the hotel pool drifted from rap by 50 Cent to Israeli folk songs. On Shabbat, more than 300 young people in their 20s and 30s observed customs that forbid use of electricity or machinery beginning at Friday sundown. For many, it was the first taste of a fully orthodox Shabbat. Earlier, at a beach club down the road, singles took part in a version of "The Dating Game." The reason, said meeting coordinator Diego Ornique, is exactly what it seems: a chance to play matchmaker. Inter-religious marriage and emigration has cut deeply into many Jewish communities from the Danube River to the Aegean and Black seas - leaving them with populations that range from less than 13,000 in Romania to just 250 in Macedonia. "Sure, we hope to spark some romance," said Ornique, a Paris-based liaison for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs the Balkan project with funding assistance from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation based in Owings Mills, Maryland. "I guess you could say the base for any revival is Jewish couples raising Jewish children with Jewish traditions." But other issues require more pressing attention. Jewish groups across the Balkans have waged legal battles to reclaim property once held by Holocaust victims or confiscated by governments. In one of the most high-profile cases, Bulgaria's highest court opened hearings in May on a suit filed by a Jewish organization for nearly half ownership rights to a prominent hotel in Sofia. In 1943, the Bulgarian government confiscated most Jewish property, including a Jewish school that formerly occupied the hotel site. There also are worries of anti-Jewish sentiments being fed by extremist groups such as Serbia's National Order neo-Nazi faction and Greece's ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn. "Yes, there are old prejudices and beliefs about Jews," said Dr. Alek Oscar, a 26-year-old neurologist in Sofia, Bulgaria, the hub for the nation's nearly 7,000 remaining Jews. "But we are not about looking back. We are about trying to create a new model and new network for Jews across the Balkans." A group that Oscar helps direct, Shalom, has started a business course for teenagers and an Internet chat room. Volunteers take part in an outreach program for Gypsies, also known as Roma, one of the most discriminated groups in the region. They, too, were targeted in the Holocaust. "Our experiences have taught us what it's like to be a persecuted minority," Oscar said. Judaism has been present in the Balkans since antiquity, but a major immigration began in the late 15th century when Jews expelled from Christian Iberia traveled to the European footholds of the Ottoman Empire, where Muslim rulers were generally more tolerant. By the early 20th century, there were more than 2 million Jews across the Balkans and some cities, such as Thessaloniki, were regarded as important centers of Jewish culture and commerce. The Holocaust wiped out entire communities and even in places generally spared - such as Nazi ally Bulgaria, which resisted sending Jews to concentration camps - postwar emigration to Israel and the United States drained the population. Those who remained in the Soviet orbit came under pressure to abandon Jewish culture and traditions. Today, there are an estimated 70,000 Jews across the Balkans - in addition to thousands of Israelis who started arriving in the 1990s in search of business opportunities. "The entire Jewish culture of the Balkans has been slowly wiped away for decades. In many places, there were Jews but no Jewish life," said Chris Ezri, 21, a Jewish community organizer in Oradea, Romania, where groups are hoping to rebuild the city's century-old synagogue. "We have to turn on the memories." At the meeting, young Jewish leaders described other projects - including training rabbis in Serbia for communities without any religious leaders and plans for a Jewish center in Skopje, Macedonia. "We see ourselves like the phoenix," said Lela Sadikario, a 24-year-old Jewish leader in Skopje. "We will rise from the ashes."