The Bulgarian Jewish Community, Coming Together While Social Distancing

The CEO of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria reflects on how COVID-19 has brought her community together, even as they've been forced to remain apart.

By Julia Dandolova - CEO of Shalom, the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria | June 1, 2020

Julia Dandolova, one of the leaders of the Bulgarian Jewish community, is proud of how they've come together while remaining apart because of social distancing.

When it comes to the coronavirus, I hesitate to use the word “lucky,” but I will say that in Bulgaria, we’ve fared better than many other countries. We had our first case here on March 8, after Italy and the rest of Western Europe. In fact, we were the last place in Europe to report a case.

One of the lessons we’ve learned over the years is that the Jewish community is always two steps ahead of general Bulgarian society. That’s a testament to JDC, and what they’ve taught us over the last few years about community resilience. We implemented social distancing measures on Feb. 24, and the Bulgarian government implemented them on March 13, so we were again two weeks ahead of our neighbors.

For us, JDC has always been the first place to turn when we needed advice, help, and support, and this crisis is no different. JDC’s Europe team were the first ones to call us when the quarantine began. Basically, for European Jewish communities like mine, JDC is still the 9-1-1 (well, we in Bulgaria use 1-1-2) — the first people we consult with in times of emergency. This current moment certainly qualifies, and JDC is working to help us provide emergency grants to support families in need who are new to the welfare caseload.

Julia collaborating with her colleague, before COVID-19 forced them to adapt to new ways of working together.

I think we must have been good in class because a lot of what we learned about how to react in a crisis we learned from JDC. We had to make unpleasant decisions like financial cuts and closing our buildings, but all of our professionals and lay leaders were extremely brave, knowing that these measures were essential for the future of the community. 

For decades, we’ve been working so hard to bring Judaism back into people’s homes. In Eastern Europe, religion was never a big part of people’s lives, but with the quarantine, we’re now closer to that goal than ever before. Last September, we opened our Jewish day school, and since the pandemic, it’s moved completely online. Never before have 85 Bulgarian homes started each morning with “Modeh Ani” and the Shema.

It’s a big reminder for us: We don’t have to overcomplicate things to get the community together. Jewish community life is attractive and relevant not because it’s flashy — we’re valuable because our community members know we care for them and give them the opportunity to have Jewish experiences and celebrations. We’re seen as the support structure of the community, and for the people we serve, simply knowing that we’re there is the most important thing.

We’re doing everything possible to ensure physical isolation doesn’t mean social isolation.

We’re doing everything possible to ensure physical isolation doesn’t mean social isolation. We’re trying to help people feel like they’re really part of a community. One of the unexpected blessings as we’ve moved programs online has been the ability of Jews from more isolated communities to participate. Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Burgas, Varna ?— these are smaller communities that were never able to be part of Sofia’s vibrant Jewish life more than once or twice a year. Now, they are connected and active, too.

I’ve been so impressed by our community members. In partnership with the Claims Conference, we guaranteed that all of our community members above the age of 55 received a “Neshama Bag,” which was especially meaningful for isolated elderly Jews who previously relied on community center activities that are now on hold. The kits were full of coloring books, a booklet with suggested exercise activities, and letters from students at our Jewish school and Gan Balagan kindergarten. Our young people wrote to more than 400 elderly Jews, and I was so amazed by the incredible letters, pictures, and stories they put together.

Julia laughs with an elderly community member. Now, because of Covid-19, heartfelt letters are taking the place of in-person interactions.

Two JDC-supported programs also moved online very successfully. We were supposed to have our Limmud in early May but shifted to a model where we hosted a series of one-day seminars online. On the first day, more than 500 people tuned into the Zoom, participating in 14 different lectures and programs.

I was even more struck by how our spring camp for children moved online. Our madrichim (counselors) were extremely brave. Imagine a 19-year-old standing alone in front of his computer and leading Jewish songs, Jewish dancing, a talent, and all sorts of activities. It was also an opportunity for us to bring this signature community program in front of more than people than ever before. This year, it wasn’t just the kids who received the benefit of the spring camp. Their parents and grandparents were invited in, too.

The pandemic has made us really take a step back and rethink our community priorities. It’s shown us that in times of crisis, our Bulgarian Jewish community really comes together. When we had to organize our matzah delivery, we were already in lockdown, so it was impossible for people to come to the synagogue and pick up their matzah, as we’d done in previous years. With one week’s notice, we had to organize matzah delivery to more than 300 homes in the city. An enormous amount of volunteers showed up, ready to be “delivery guys” for the community. I was so proud.

Before all this, we sometimes had a difficult time finding the volunteers we needed to sustain the daily life of the community. Now we have more people volunteering to be “phone buddies” for the elderly than we have people who’ve requested this service. It’s a difficult time for all of us — we’re all scared and we’re all afraid the world will never return to normal — but the community allows people to feel like they can still do something meaningful.

Even though we need to stay at homes in self-isolation, this moment isn’t about any one person — not me as CEO or Dr. Alek Oscar, our wonderful community president. It’s about collective responsibility. I’ve never felt more connected to my community than now. Before, when we were able to be together in person, we took so much for granted, but now we understand that community requires something from each and every one of us.

In these times of crisis, the Bulgarian Jewish community didn’t crack. We came together. I couldn’t be prouder.

A former JDC employee, Julia Dandolova is the CEO of Shalom, the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria.

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