From the CEO: Responding to Challenges and Opportunities in Bulgaria and Hungary

Alan H. Gill

– Chief Executive Officer

I spent four days in Bulgaria and Hungary last month, visiting with the Jewish communities in Sofia and Budapest, and I came away both inspired and concerned. In many ways, these two communities serve as a reflection of the larger Jewish world in which JDC is working today to strengthen individual communities, as well as Jewish life globally.  

In these uncertain and paradoxical times, the Jewish world faces both threats and opportunities. And what these visits underlined for me is the fact that even in the midst of threats, there are great opportunities before us. 

We have the opportunity today to reach every Jew in need, anywhere in the world. The need may be material in nature, and I certainly witnessed a lot of that. But there are unmet spiritual needs that are equally compelling—yearnings to recover and explore a long-denied heritage—and a strong desire to connect to the Jewish People throughout the world.  

Both Bulgaria and Hungary are facing extremely challenging economic and political times.

In Bulgaria, which has the lowest average wage in the EU, Europe’s ongoing debt crisis has only exacerbated the effects of the global economic slowdown, while government austerity measures have repeatedly slashed social services and benefits even as unemployment and prices have increased. Skyrocketing utility costs have been especially painful—electric bills rose an average of 60 and for some even 100% this past winter. This was a key factor in the February street protests that caused the government to resign.

The official unemployment rate in Bulgaria is 11.1%; in Hungary, it was 10.8%. But these are the official figures; in Bulgaria, for instance, they do not take into account the large “informal” economy, or the longer term unemployed. Real unemployment is estimated to be above 20% in Bulgaria, and in both countries we were told that, along with inflation, these rates are rapidly increasing.  

Shalom, JDC’s main partner in Bulgaria, has seen a 150% increase in its clients—those who need basic material assistance—over the past two years, and requests for help keep coming in. With many previously self-sufficient Jewish families now finding themselves among the “new poor,” a swelling number of Bulgarian Jews are relying on us and the community for their most basic needs.

In Sofia, we visited a family of six living and sleeping together in a shack barely 300 feet square. The youngest, a teenager, suffers from multiple physical ailments. These are homeless Jews living as squatters; their shack had no heat and looked as if it were on the verge of collapse. 

Then there is Veronika, an 18-year-old girl living in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother, uncle, grandparents, and great uncle. With multiple health and learning problems, Veronika’s life is filled with difficulties that no girl her age should have to go through. Layoffs and benefit cuts have taken a toll on her extended family’s already meager income, leaving all six dependent on the community’s assistance.

Their story illustrates the multi-dimensional aspects of our urgent aid program, which includes food and medical assistance, help with rent and utility bills, job training opportunities, and keeping both the young and the elderly connected to Jewish life. We have enabled Veronika, for instance, to participate in Jewish camps and other community activities, while her mother, newly trained, has recently begun working for Shalom as a home care assistant. Veronika’s outlook has brightened, knowing that she and her family are not alone to deal with their problems.

In both these countries, economic distress has brought political uncertainty in its wake. Yet there are key differences in the way that political forces in these two countries appear to be playing out, especially in terms of their relationship to their respective Jewish communities. 

In Hungary, we are witnessing a disturbing and growing nationalism and anti-Semitism. Jobbik, the Hungarian nationalist party, is now Hungary's third largest party, having garnered 16.7% of the vote in the last general elections. While the political situation in Bulgaria may be chaotic—especially as the May 12th parliamentary elections approach—the political conversation has not been hostile to the Jewish population.

At the same time, Jewish life in both countries is flowering. In Hungary, I met with this year’s counselors in training for our JDC/Lauder Foundation International Summer Camp at Szarvas, soon to celebrate its 24th year. In fact, every young adult I met in both Hungary and Bulgaria has benefited from JDC’s Jewish camping programs. I was struck by how passionate these young adults are—both couples with children and singles—and how much they are now a part of the reality of the global Jewish People.

In this time of economic upheaval, the communities in both these countries have rallied. I witnessed emerging community leaders—young, highly educated and motivated Jews who are deeply committed not only to their own community and to helping the neediest among them, but also to various regionwide activities in Europe and to connecting with Jews in Israel and beyond. A number were going on from there to attend the JDC “Junction” young Jewish leadership program in Amsterdam.

And while we do not know what’s in store for their future, we do know that these young people are now firm in their Jewish identities and can be counted on to participate in global Jewish life. So, as I highlighted in my last blog when I wrote about St. Petersburg’s dynamic young leaders, we may have grave challenges today in Bulgaria and Hungary, but we also have two more shining examples here of Jewish promise and hope.

P.S.: The JDC Ambassadors’ upcoming visit to Szarvas, Budapest, and Berlin will enable you to experience many of these programs for yourself—click here for details; and you can explore other JDC travel opportunities at JDC Entwine.

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