Feature Stories

Judafest in Bulgaria

For JDC staff member Julia Dandolova, the chance to see more than 10,000 Bulgarians pack the streets of Sofia for a daylong Jewish festival was nothing short of “breathtaking.”

The Shalom Sofia Fest — modeled after Budapest’s popular JDC-supported Judafest, which has drawn huge crowds for more than five years — is supported by JDC as part of a region-wide “Judaism Without Walls” initiative geared at bringing non-affiliated Jews into Jewish life through innovative programs that operate outside of traditional frameworks.

Bulgaria’s inaugural festival, held in mid-September, utilized more than 100 volunteers, who helped coordinate 19 different activity stations — allowing attendees to sample food, make their own challah, purchase Jewish books, visit one of Sofia’s synagogue, create art, learn about Jewish holidays, and more.

The festival helped show both Jews and non-Jews in Bulgaria that a relationship based on mutual respect is possible and important, said Dandolova, JDC’s country director in Bulgaria.

“The fact that many people helped the event come true showed to Jewish people who weren’t volunteers or aren’t very active in the community that we rely on each other, that the community has a lot to offer to everyone, and that together we can celebrate flourishing Jewish life with pride,” she said. “At the same time, it shows that Jews can be an inseparable part of Bulgarian society.”

Vasil Haikin, an active member of the Bulgarian Jewish community, said he decided to attend the festival with his family as a way of spotlighting the revival of Jewish culture in Sofia.

“It was amazing to see hundreds of people — from little children to the elderly; Jews and non-Jews, professional dancers and just curious people passing by,” he said. “They were able to celebrate together, learn a new activity and smile at strangers, while dancing under traditional Jewish tunes.”

The tour of Jewish Sofia proved particularly moving, Haikin said.

“It showed citizens of Sofia a new perspective on their home town,” he said. “It taught them that Jews were always a big part of Bulgarian, that the history of these two groups have always been entwined.”

Dandolova said the festival helped connect prominent companies to the Bulgarian Jewish community, something that hadn’t happened before.

“One surprise was the new friends we made,” she said.  “We worked great together, and we feel we made new strong connections and friendships.”

Impressed by both the turnout and energy of September’s event, Dandolova said she’s hopeful the Shalom Sofia Fest will become a popular annual tradition.

“It showed us that Bulgarian society is curious and wants to understand the traditions of the Jewish culture,” she said. “It also shows the community members that they shouldn’t hide or be afraid of showing their Jewish identity openly. Even though we weren’t experienced in organizing such a massive project, the outcome was positive, and it exceeded our expectations.”

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