Global Jewish Reflections | Finding a Modern-Day Mishkan in Jewish Bulgaria

Ahead of Sukkot, Rabbi Evan Sheinhait reflects on the mishkan — the mobile tabernacle the Israelites built in the desert — and connects it to the Jewish community of Bulgaria.

By Rabbi Evan Sheinhait - JDC Entwine Participant | October 7, 2022

Rabbi Evan Sheinhait, left, poses for a photo at a home visit in Sofia, Bulgaria during his recent JDC Entwine Insider Trip with Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

In Exodus, we describe a new dwelling place for God in excruciating detail — the mishkan. This is a structure that the entire community will help construct, support, and carry with them as they move through the desert from slavery to freedom. The latter half of Exodus is devoted to the intricate details of the mishkan. From blue, purple, and crimson yarns ordaining the outside to golden almonds and pomegranates decorating the ritual objects within to even the surprising mention of dolphin skins, it’s a structure that would make even the streets of Paris and Barcelona look simple.

While we don’t have the biblical mishkan today, this idea has inspired our sacred spaces from the Temple in Jerusalem to the structures we build during the holiday of Sukkot. For a week, we live in ornate sukkot. Decorated with tapestries, twinkling lights to brighten the night, and of course, the New England fall necessity — a pumpkin, the sukkah becomes an extension of our homes. It illustrates, quite literally, the values we live by and the traditions sacred within our hearts. The mishkan and the sukkah exist as models for the Jewish people searching to create a home wherever in the world they are.

Rabbi Evan Sheinhait

On a recent JDC Entwine Insider Trip in tandem with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, I entered a modern mishkan at the Sofia Synagogue in Bulgaria’s capital city. This third-largest synagogue in Europe dominates the skyline of the city center and the Stars of David glimmer in the sunlight for all to see. It’s a central home for the local community, and it was at the synagogue where I was introduced to the Beyoncé of Jewish Bulgaria: Lika Ashkenazi. Lika’s warmth envelops you the moment you approach her and she becomes the aunt you didn’t know you had. She leads the Ladino choir as they sing classics of secular and liturgical Ladino music, from “Ein Keloheinu” to Sephardic love ballads. She sings on the steps of the Sofia Synagogue as if it’s the TD Garden, and we joked that she only needs a smoke machine to make her performance tour-ready. Though we’d only met an hour earlier, Lika led our group in song and taught us traditional Bulgarian Jewish dancing, the cousin to the hora. In the shadow of the massive synagogue, I joined the community in laughter and dance. 

Written on Lika’s face are the stories of her ancestors, and it’s become her mission to keep the Bulgarian Sephardic tradition alive. Many Bulgarian Jews have lost the ability to speak Ladino, just as many American Jews have lost the ability to speak Yiddish and the other languages of our ancestors. Despite not knowing the language, community members share in Lika’s delight in their traditional culture. Lika has taken it upon herself to be the preserver and distributor of Bulgarian Jewish culture. She becomes a celebrity because of her obligations. Despite a language barrier, she communicates her tradition beautifully so we understand and appreciate it in ways beyond words. Lika takes your hand and brings you into song and dance. She hands over guardianship, making you a chain in this beautiful tradition. With Lika’s commitment. the community feels whole. Lika transforms the synagogue from a beautifully ornate but static building into a place that reverberates love and wisdom. In the center of the Bulgarian capital city, the Sofia Synagogue exists as a mishkan for the Bulgarian Jewish community.

A home is more than a building. A synagogue is more than just a synagogue. These spaces are inspirations to celebrate contemporary Jewish life. What defines a mishkan in our modern time period is the ability to take our traditional values and update them with modern practices. It takes the simple bricks and stones of our buildings and transforms them into sacred living.

A home is more than a building. A synagogue is more than just a synagogue. These spaces are inspirations to celebrate contemporary Jewish life.

As I danced in the synagogue’s courtyard, the questions of contemporary living came alive. As I roamed the streets of Sofia, I witnessed people take their identity and generate honest expressions of Judaism. And as I sit in my balcony sukkah this year, decorated with some new souvenirs, I will delight in the power of the mishkan, an idea that keeps our communities thriving and dancing into the new year. 

Mo’adim l’Simcha!

Rabbi Evan Sheinhait is a passionate community builder who celebrates vibrant and meaningful Jewish identity, exploring what Jewish life can and must look like in the 21st century. Throughout his rabbinate, Rabbi Evan has worked with Hillels and synagogues across the East Coast. Evan is a proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a Bachelor of Arts in Judaic Studies, and ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2019. Evan has participated on JDC Entwine trips to Ramle, Israel — with the Beta Israel (Ethiopian) community — and Sofia, Bulgaria. On the side, Evan loves to read spy novels, travel to new places with his dog Lilith, and cook dishes from around the world with his wife Micaela.

JDC has had a decades-long relationship with the Bulgarian Jewish community, supporting welfare and community development.

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