I had the utmost pleasure of participating in JDC Entwine’s latest trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. When I began working with Entwine months prior to the trip, I recall having thought to myself “Bulgaria? I can’t even place it on a map!” Little did I know, Sofia was going to be the center of an incredibly unique and overwhelmingly special Jewish experience.
As I exited the baggage claim area at Sofia Airport, I was greeted by three of my fellow participants. We excitedly introduced ourselves and curiously floated the many questions that had only intensified during our long day of traveling: “How big is the Jewish community in Sofia?” “How were these Jewish folks affected by the Holocaust?” “How did communism affect the Jewish community and life in Bulgaria in general?” “Does the Jewish community face the same rates of antisemitism as other Jewish communities in Europe?” “Who will we meet during our time here?” We left the airport with open minds and a thousand more questions that were to be answered over the coming week.
The JCC Beit Shalom, the hub of the Jewish community in Sofia, became our homebase to which we would return to every day throughout our trip. There, we had the opportunity to meet with the leaders of the Bulgarian Jewish community; Julia, Darya, Maksim, and Alexander, all of whom shared personal journeys of identifying with their Judaism despite many factors.
Any original assumptions I had going into these conversations were swiftly debunked—one being that the majority of Bulgarian Jews are Sephardic, their ancestors having been expelled from Spain during the inquisition settled in the Balkan region for hundreds of years. Through these personal and meaningful conversations, we were able to begin to understand the rich Bulgarian Jewish history that has continued to persevere amid perpetual hard times.
The other Jewish hub we explored was the Sofia Synagogue, the oldest and largest synagogue in all the Balkans. The vibrant colors and ornate details conveyed almost a regal-like ambiance yet was also extremely inviting. This synagogue stands proudly as identifiably Jewish and has done so throughout World War II, communism, and present-day. While admiring the sheer beauty of this synagogue and comprehending its vast history, I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of pride and connection.
There, we were able to enjoy a traditional Sephardic meal, a fantastic musical performance from Lika, Bulgaria’s Sephardic gem, Shabbat services, and Kiddish—all of which made me recognize the idea of universal Jewish comfort—where you can be thousands of miles away from your individual Jewish community, yet feel wholeheartedly comfortable and connected to another.
Something that this trip didn’t lack was special chesed experiences. Julia accompanied me and two others to the home of a Holocaust and communism survivor, Ida, who instantly met us with warm hugs and beer. We sat with her for around an hour listening to her life story of perseverance. She humbly told us of her successful opera career which was her creative outlet during these dark times. She reminded me of my own grandmother, witty and wonderful. Ida willingly welcomed us into her house, fed us, and shared her stories. We all left her house feeling unbelievably grateful and touched by her wise words.
Throughout our week in Sofia, we were really able to interact with every age group. During one of our visits to Beit Shalom, we had the opportunity to dance and draw with Ukrainian refugee children, all of whom were in Bulgaria with only their mothers. I am going to be honest; I didn’t know what to expect—many thoughts ran through my mind as we entered their classroom. We were met with pure excitement and curiosity! Dancing and lots of laughter ensued, not to mention their incredibly impressive English skills! To conclude our time with these children, we colored and drew together—many of their pictures depicted Ukrainian flags and flourishing nature.
I, as well as my fellow participants, are forever touched by the community’s willingness to welcome us with open arms and teach us about their history and culture. One of the many takeaways from this experience was the importance of sharing the stories of others.
Before departing for Bulgaria, I virtually knew nothing about the country and neither did most of my friends and family. It is essential to listen, learn, and appreciate the generosity and kindness of others—and share what you’ve learned. I am so utterly thankful for the time I spent in Bulgaria, curtesy of JDC Entwine, CJP, and the Jewish community of Sofia. It was a once in a lifetime experience that encouraged much reflection among all of us.
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