In Bulgaria, a New Jewish Day School Faces Coronavirus

The Jewish community in Sofia, Bulgaria accomplished something incredible — opening their own Jewish day school. But just as they found their sea legs, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

By Maxim Delchev - Director of education, Shalom — the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria | June 26, 2020

Maxim Delchev with two young students at a Community Seder hosted by the Maxim Delchev with two young students at the community seder held by the Ronald S. Lauder School in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Back in September, we opened a Jewish day school here in Sofia, Bulgaria — our first such endeavor in 20 years. We began with 75 students, and next year we’re going to have 110, as we’ll add another grade. We estimate that we serve more or less every other Jewish child in our community, and the school has brought in a lot of new kids, too — children we’d never seen in our community camps or informal education activities. Many children of Israeli parents in Bulgaria attend our school, and for some of them, it’s their first connection with our community.

Before our school — named for Ronald S. Lauder, whose foundation was a major funder of the project, partnering with JDC and others — opened, it was impossible to do serious Jewish learning in the public schools. Though we were able to teach Hebrew, we couldn’t really instruct students about the holidays and Jewish traditions. The goal with our school was to have the kind of place where we could be in control.

The year before we opened was all about engaging our parents, trying to ensure this was not just a classic school but a true project of the community. Our current building is the former old-age home of the Bulgarian Jewish community, but we hope to build a complex where our school can join forces with our Gan Balagan Jewish kindergarten, another JDC-supported project, within a few years.

Students celebrate the opening of the Ronald S. Lauder school in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I’d always wanted to have a proper Jewish school in Sofia because, though we were doing a lot of informal education and our madrichim (counselors) are amazing, we’d never had a place where there was a constant Jewish atmosphere all the time. We’d never had the chance to imagine what that would mean. We could envision a Hebrew class, but what would it mean to celebrate Chanukah for a week in school? We opened on Sept. 15, and by Sept. 16, we already had new questions and new ideas. 

Just as we felt we had gotten our sea legs and finally found our rhythm, the coronavirus pandemic began. We quickly realized we needed to shift to online learning. We try as much as we can to model the normal offline school day, and I’m proud that we were one of the few schools in Sofia able to quickly adapt.

We start each day together with something called “Morning Circle,” where every class presents something on the Jewish value of the month (things like curiosity, courage, and hesed) and we sing Modeh Ani and the Shema. Before COVID-19, this happened all together in our building, but when we moved online, we were afraid of what the parents would say — prayers in the morning are one thing when they’re at school, another thing entirely when they happen in your living room. Much to my surprise, Morning Circle has been very successful online. We get great feedback from the parents, and even though it’d be easy for kids not to participate (since they don’t receive a grade for it), they seem to love it.

Students attend an online ‘Morning Circle.’

Our school’s goal is to be part of the community and bring more people in, and this first year was a great step in that direction. We know our parents feel connected, able to join in and participate. To me, that’s success.

The idea that everyone is welcome as a member of the community, regardless of what their religious life looks like, is something we learned from JDC.

JDC’s been an important partner to us. They help us by being a consistent presence here and helping us develop on our terms. Years ago, we would never have been able to open this kind of school. With everything we’ve developed over the last two or three decades of working with JDC, we’ve come to understand more about the kind of community we want to live in, the kind of culture we want to build. The idea that everyone is welcome as a member of the community, regardless of what their religious life looks like, is something we learned from JDC.

We’re still learning, and there are lots of things to optimize and make better, but there’s still so much to celebrate. For many years, our government only allowed us to have Judaism off to the side, in what felt like a dark corner of the last room of the hall. Now, at our school, every meal starts with “HaMotzi,” the prayer over bread. I think it’s just amazing.

One week before the pandemic began, we were completely sure we’d never be able to move learning online. Now, I write to you after a very structured, proper, and successful year of learning together online. What it’s taught us is that we have a group of people here in the Bulgarian Jewish community who are really supportive, who are ready to give of themselves in powerful ways. We don’t know what September will look like, but we know that with our community’s support, we will be able to meet the moment, whatever it looks like.

Maxim Delchev, 34, is the director of education for Shalom, The Organization of Jews in Bulgaria. He serves as a liaison between the Ronald S. Lauder School and the broader Bulgarian Jewish community.

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