Albanian Jews reject appointment of new chief rabbi

Members of the local Jewish community complain the position created without consultation, and declare that they refuse to recognize his authority.

Albanian Jews 311 (photo credit: Chabad)
Albanian Jews 311
(photo credit: Chabad)
Last month, the Albanian government appointed Rabbi Yoel Kaplan as the former communist country’s first chief rabbi, amid much fanfare.
But in an angry letter recently sent to The Jerusalem Post, members of the local Jewish community complained the position had been created without consultation, and declared that they refused to recognize his authority.
“We completely alienate ourselves from this illicit and incorrect act, which was carried out in total discordance to the historical and religious traditions and principles of our nation,” stated the letter, which was signed by 34 of the country’s estimated 150 Jews.
“We strongly appeal and urge all the Albanian institutions and the international Jewish organizations to preliminary consult the Albanian-Jewish community before taking any action that would directly impact its dignity and community life, since we do not recognize Rabbi Yoel Kaplan as Albania’s Chief Rabbi.”
The signatories also alleged that Sokol Pirra, who helped facilitate Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s visit to Albania and who the signatories said had lobbied to create the position, was an impostor.
“Mr. Sokol Pirra is not the representative of our community,” they declared. “He is not even one of its members, because his connections to Judaism are very unclear at least, not to say inexistent.”
Kaplan, who had initially been unaware of the letter’s existence, responded to its criticism of his appointment in an e-mail this week, saying his critics within the community misunderstood his mission.
“The people behind the letter fear losing their role as unofficial representatives of Israeli-Albanian commercial ties,” he said. “Of course, such fears need not exist. My clear and sole goal is reinforcing Jewish life. Up until now, there have been gatherings for international Holocaust Remembrance Day and, at best, Israel’s Independence Day as well. We want to reinforce an active Jewish life throughout the year and establish an active community center.”
Jews have lived the area of present-day Albania for at least 1,300 years. Under the communist regime, all religions were suppressed, but when Albania opened up to the world in 1991, the majority of the remaining 300 Jews were airlifted to Israel. Only a few, mostly living in the capital Tirana, where the country’s only functioning synagogue is located, remained behind.
Yossi Levi, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which was also sent a copy of the letter, said on Monday that it wasn’t the ministry’s position to comment on appointments of rabbis in Jewish communities overseas.
“This is up to local communities to decide,” he said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Kaplan said he would continue to serve the community despite the criticism from some of its members.
“The letter is indeed charged, but now the Albanian community has joined other Jewish communities around the world: There are camps in favor and against,” he wrote in the e-mail. “A day will come where, God willing, I will bring them together.”