Feature Stories

In Time for Chanukah, Sofia Dedicates First Jewish Preschool in More Than 50 Years

Benvenita enjoys a Kosher breakfast at her new preschool.
Benvenita enjoys a Kosher breakfast at her new preschool.

For Shlomo, a 33-year-old father of two from Sofia, Bulgaria, the fact that his daughter Benvenita attends a Jewish preschool is a dream come true. “My wife and I feel it is so important that our child is in a Jewish environment where she receives first-rate care from trained and experienced Jewish teachers,” he said of his two-year-old’s participation in Gan Balagan. A collaborative project of JDC and Shalom, Bulgarian Jewry’s social and cultural organization, Gan Balagan is the first Jewish preschool to open its doors in the city in the more than half-century since the “Anna Ventura” school property was confiscated from the Jewish community by the government in 1958. Symbolically, the community is dedicating this children’s haven during Chanukah.

Located in the local Beit Shalom Jewish Community Center and across from a synagogue, the nursery is quickly becoming a haven for Benvenita and more than 20 other children, ages 2-5 years. There they learn basic Hebrew, Jewish traditions, and enjoy Jewish-themed toys and educational tools in a well-equipped, modern facility that includes a spacious area for dancing and role-playing, multimedia equipment, and a piano. The school also provides daily kosher, nutritious meals-two breakfasts and a three-course lunch-which is a compelling benefit rarely offered by the state institutions.

“I haven’t seen a better designed and organized place for children in Sofia,” said Shlomo.

In fact, this newly dedicated preschool helps address an important need in Bulgaria at large, where a shortage of state-run preschools has left some 3,000 children without an early-education framework. Gan Balagan charges the lowest tuition among all of the private preschools and is seeking subsidies for families that cannot afford to cover the full cost on their own.

But for himself and other young Jewish parents in Bulgaria, the essence of this school is how it will inculcate Jewish values in the youngest community members right from the start-an opportunity which he and his cohort coming of age under Communism didn’t have. “My daughter is surrounded by Jewish friends and comes home singing Jewish songs with so much enthusiasm! This is amazing!”

Shlomo didn’t begin to explore Judaism with fervor until the mid-1990s, when he was 18;  today he and his wife, Iliana, open their home to more than 20 people for Shabbat, and own the first kosher café in Sofia, where they produce kosher challot.

“It makes me feel calm that my child will grow up with a strong Jewish identity and with an excellent basis for her future Jewish education,” said Shlomo, referencing the transition Benvenita could make from this preschool into the community’s Jewish primary and high schools. “Our son was just born last month, but we are very happy that a couple of years from now he will join this Paradise for Jewish kids.”

Tags for this story: Children, Jewish Holiday Celebrations

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