Inspiring New CEO Spotlights Bulgarian Community’s Sustainability

October 3, 2017


Growing up in Communist Bulgaria, Julia Dandolova hated the regime’s dark colors and forbidding
public spaces.

That’s why she designed her office to be “open, bright, and comfortable” — new optimism and energy reflecting her new role as the CEO of Shalom, the Bulgarian Jewish community’s governing body.

The walls of her central Sofia office are covered with vibrant photos of community events, young leaders at summer camps, holiday celebrations, and memories of her own Jewish journey since connecting to her Jewish roots at the age of 12.

“The pictures are so I don’t forget why I’m here,” said Dandolova, 39. “They make me feel proud. The word ‘Jewish’ didn’t mean anything to me 27 years ago, and now I’m here.”

Hers is a position that never existed before March 2017. It never needed to.

“The word ‘Jewish’ didn’t mean

anything to me 27 years ago,

and now I’m here.”

But as Bulgaria’s Jewish community of about 5,000 sustainably developed new institutions and initiatives, building capacity over the nearly three decades since Communism fell, its leaders realized the need for a manager like Dandolova, who worked for JDC as its Bulgaria country director for 13 years before assuming her current role.

“The community is maturing, and without the support of JDC, it would never have been possible,” said Dr. Alek Oscar, the 39-year-old president of the Bulgarian Jewish community. “There is hardly a person better prepared for this job than Julia. She knows the community, she knows the people, and she has the sensitivity and understanding needed to be the CEO.”

As a child, Dandolova’s only exposure to Jewish identity came from the “Jewish Cultural House” sign perched over the entrance to the building where her grandfather played backgammon and her grandmother read poetry with other elderly Jews. The building is now home to the Jewish Community Center where her office is located.

As she grew up, attending camps and then staffing them, deepening her involvement in the Jewish community at every turn, Dandolova learned how to be a leader.

“What JDC was doing in Bulgaria for all those years was not just providing services and giving food packages and sending people to teach us something,” she said. “What I love, and what I’ve realized, actually, is that JDC was teaching us how to do it by ourselves.”

Dandolova said it was humbling and a bit scary to be offered the CEO job.

“For 13 years, everything I did was about telling people, ‘It’s in your hands. You can do it. Don’t get discouraged. Try again. It’s your community,’ encouraging them. And so when they offered me the job, it would have cheapened all of that if I said no,” she said. “The Jewish community in Bulgaria is already 27 years old. We’ve passed through childhood, through our teen years, and we can’t say anymore that we are young and inexperienced.”

Once, Dandolova thought her days of Jewish learning might be behind her — she’d shifted to being the teacher, spending so many years teaching others about Jewish culture and traditions, strengthening a whole generation’s Jewish identity.

But one day, her daughter, then a student at Sofia’s fast-growing Gan Balagan Jewish kindergarten, came home with a challah recipe Dandolova had never seen before.

That’s when she knew: Her daughter had a true Bulgarian Jewish identity, not something imported from America or Israel, but something homegrown.

Now, Dandolova looks to the future with hope and pride, and with gratitude for the partner she has in JDC.

“We’re very passionate about who we are, and we really believe we have something special to give to the Jewish world,” she said. “But communities need mentors, too. We need reminders. We need somebody to help us see the bigger picture. Being a self-sustainable community does not mean going it alone.”

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