Kati Petrova, 17, is one of the most recent graduates of Hadracha College, a leadership development course JDC supports in Bulgaria.

A few years ago, Kati Petrova was an eighth-grader with little connection to her Jewish roots. The Shabbat afternoon programs of her Jewish kindergarten were a distant memory.

Now, the 17-year-old is poised to begin her first summer as a madricha (counselor), part of an elite corps of summer camp counselors tasked with teaching the next generation of young Bulgarian Jews.

Petrova is one of the most recent graduates of Hadracha College, an intensive two-year training and team-building course that helps usher young Jewish Bulgarians into adulthood, preparing them for their transition from program participants to emerging leaders.

Participants meet weekly in Sofia, Bulgaria’s bustling capital city of 1.26 million people and about 5,000 Jews, and come together for weekend retreats and seminars a few times a year.

“This is what makes the community. This is what brings it life. If there weren’t madrichim, there wouldn’t be all these camps and programs; there wouldn’t be those kids coming to us with very big smiles,” she said. “I tell my friends: ‘It will change your life for the better.’”

Hadracha College is a key community development tool for the Bulgarian Jewish community, explained Ina Romano, JDC’s program coordinator in Sofia. And in Eastern and Central Europe, Jewish camps are more than bonfires and kayaking and color wars — they’re a playground for community, an innovative laboratory for catalyzing Jewish identity in more than a dozen countries where Jewish life was suppressed for decades under Communism.

“What we’re searching for are people who want to give their heart to the community. Everything else you can learn.”

“It’s the place where the next generation of the Jewish community grows up,” said Maxim Delchev, the Bulgarian community’s top Jewish educator. “Everything that we learned, not only about Judaism but also about ourselves, we learned through camp.”

A Hadracha College alumna herself, Romano termed the program “one of the most meaningful” rites of passage imaginable, helping to shape the character, interests, passions, and priorities of about 25 teenagers every two years.

Most of the community’s current leaders are former Hadracha College participants, she said.

“It’s not a passive program, where you enter a room and listen to someone giving a lecture,” Romano continued. “It shows young people in real time that the future really is in their own hands. It’s up to them to raise the next generation’s interest in Jewish communal life. It’s up to them to improve community programs. And it’s up to them to one day change the community completely.”

Delchev said that passion is the key ingredient for successful Hadracha College graduates and future madrichim.

“What we’re searching for are people who want to give their heart to the community,” he said. “Everything else you can learn.”

In many European Jewish communities, younger generations born after Communism fell and Jewish communal life returned in earnest, aided by JDC take on the mantle of teaching their parents and grandparents about Jewish traditions and rituals.

Petrova said she knows that story well. A few weeks ago, Hadracha College parents were invited to an evening program alongside their future-madrichim children. At one point, Petrova looked over to see her mother silently crying happy tears.

“She’s very proud,” Petrova said. “Hadracha College is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s making you a grown-up, but at the same time it’s leaving your inner child inside of you.”

For Petrova, who just a few years ago hadn’t heard of madrichim or Hadracha College, the Jewish community has now become “her home.”

“What’s home? Home is the place you feel the most comfortable. It’s cozy there, it’s where your family is, it’s where you can cry but also laugh,” she said. “And I’m trying to give the Jewish community what it needs from me.”