Across Europe, Integrating Ukraine’s Jews
September 22, 2022
Maxim Delchev was just a child in the late 1990s when Bulgaria suffered through financial instability in the wake of the Communist government’s collapse, but he still vividly recalls the way that JDC and other international Jewish organizations helped his friends and neighbors in their hour of need.
Twenty-five years later, Delchev — now the director of Jewish education for Shalom, the umbrella organization for Bulgarian Jewry — said it’s the memory of those lean years that’s helping power his community’s response to the crisis in Ukraine.
“I remember my grandmother going to the synagogue to receive food packages from JDC, paid for by Jews in the United States simply because there were Jews in need in Bulgaria,” he said. “Now we’re in a similar situation — we don’t know these people, but we know they need help. I’m happy we’re able to do what other people did for us. That’s our response to Ukraine. It wasn’t a question. It’s opening our doors and saying, ‘You are welcome.’”
The Bulgarian Jewish community continues to integrate the refugees — connecting them with open apartments, inviting them to camps, holiday celebrations, and other community gatherings, and enrolling Ukrainian students in Sofia’s Jewish day school.
For Julie Georgieva, Shalom’s director of client services and membership, it’s a response in line with her community’s mission and values even during peacetime.
She said she smiles each time she sees a Ukrainian family at a community event like a Purim party or Passover Seder, and she was especially proud that when Shalom posted a questionnaire shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion asking community members to help the new arrivals, more than 200 people responded — a significant percentage of the Bulgarian Jewish community.
“In times of crisis, we can really see how strong our community is, and our people definitely stepped up,” said Georgieva, whose mother is originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine. “It’s a serious source of stress to lose your friends and your classmates, to be in another country where you don’t speak the language. I believe we’ve helped these families feel secure, safe, and very welcome.”
Georgieva’s is just one among many European Jewish communities that have partnered with JDC to absorb Ukrainian refugees and connect them with Jewish life in their new cities.
In Poland’s capital, the JDC-supported JCC Warszawa began putting out many of its communications in Ukrainian, along with the usual Polish and English, and Ukrainian refugee children were welcomed to Atid, the annual Polish Jewish summer camp.
The JCC also hosted a series of “refugee Shabbat” events designed to make new Ukrainian members of the community feel especially welcomed and wanted, said Marta Saracyn, the center’s interim director.
“We may still be a growing community, but we have enough to offer people who have come here. We can give them a sense of security and a chance to breathe, and we’re there emotionally,” she said. “We didn’t turn away and pretend it wasn’t our business. We showed up for our fellow humans in need — because those are the values that drive us.”
It’s a response that means the world to Ukrainian refugees like Ann Kobtseva, who fled Odesa with her elderly mother and settled in Sofia in early March.
A few days into her time in Bulgaria, Kobtseva remembered to check in with the Jewish community, though she was unsure what to expect when she rang the doorbell of the Shalom building on Aleksandar Stamboliyski Boulevard.
Instead of a brush-off or just well-meaning words, she said she was met with action and tangible support — an affordable apartment to rent, invitations to community gatherings, and a volunteer who adopted her and her mom and visits frequently to bring groceries, deliver yarn for knitting, and help with household tasks.
“I get the chills when I talk about it. Here we are in wartime, living almost the same life as if we were at home. We have our own place, and we have people who care about us,” Kobtseva said. “They took care of us — not like we were friends or visitors or refugees, but as a part of the community.”