Global Jewish Reflections | On Simchat Torah, Celebrating Jewish Resilience in Bulgaria

Rachel Shapiro reflects on the resilience of Bulgarian Jewish life and how Simchat Torah gives Jews everywhere a chance to start anew.

By Rachel Shapiro - JDC Entwine Participant | October 19, 2022

When Rachel Shapiro (second from left) went to Bulgaria with JDC Entwine, she discovered a vibrant Jewish community that is thriving in spite of its difficult past.

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

Each year on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the conclusion of our annual Torah reading cycle. In Jewish communities around the world, Torah scrolls are removed from their arks and danced around synagogues. It is a joyous holiday that honors the Torah’s centrality to Jewish life and emphasizes the importance of continuity. On Simchat Torah, immediately after reading the final parasha (chapter) in D’varim (Deuteronomy), we read the first parasha of B’reishit (Genesis). In doing so, we maintain a continuous loop of weekly Torah readings, protecting the cycle from interruption. As I reflect on Simchat Torah this year, just a month after returning from a trip to Bulgaria with JDC Entwine and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), this theme of continuity resonates deeply, particularly as it relates to the charge and challenge of sustaining vibrant Jewish communities around the world.

I learned of the Inside Jewish Bulgaria trip from an announcement in a synagogue newsletter just days before the application deadline. Although — or perhaps, because — I knew little about JDC or Bulgaria’s Jewish community, the trip piqued my interest. I love meeting new people and exploring new places. I love (Jewish) history and experiencing Jewish practice in different parts of the world. Plus, after years of limited travel due to the pandemic, I was itching for an international adventure, and since I had recently decided not to return to my job as a high school history teacher, I would be able to take a trip at the start of September for the first time in many years. 

I quickly applied. Once I was accepted, and as the trip drew closer, I grew increasingly curious — about Bulgaria, about its Jewish past and present, and about the other people who would be on this journey with me. I was excited to visit a place about which I knew so little (I’m embarrassed to admit that my main association with Bulgaria prior to this trip was as the home country of the fictional Harry Potter character Viktor Krum).

Rachel Shapiro (left) visiting the JDC-supported Ronald S. Lauder Day School in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Fortunately, my learning about Bulgaria’s Jewish community began practically as soon as I arrived in Sofia. Our first evening together felt like a full day: We gathered for the first time around 4 p.m., and by the time I fell into bed that night, I’d not only met my fellow participants and set expectations for the week guided by our wonderful JDC Entwine and CJP trip leaders, but also visited Beit Ha’am (the city’s Jewish Community Center) and met with Julia Dandolova, the CEO of Shalom, the umbrella organization for Bulgarian Jews, who provided our first of several historical overviews of the country’s Jewish life. 

To briefly summarize and oversimplify, there have been Jews in the region for approximately 2,000 years. For about 1,400 years, they were mostly Romaniote Jews; more Ashkenazi Jews and then Sephardic Jews came to Bulgaria in the 15th and 16th centuries. When Bulgaria achieved independence from Ottoman rule in 1879, Jews — along with other ethnic and religious minorities — were granted political equality in the country’s new constitution. Prior to World War II, there were about 50,000 Bulgarian Jews, and most survived the Holocaust (note: Bulgaria’s Holocaust history deserves more nuanced attention than I’m choosing to include here; I encourage you to read up on it … along with the rest of its Jewish history!). Between 1944 and 1951, most of the Jewish population emigrated to then-Palestine/the newly created State of Israel. Under Communist rule, religious practice of any kind — not just Judaism — was discouraged. With just around 5,000 Jews remaining in the country and little institutional support for organized religious life, synagogues and schools closed, Jews married non-Jews, and traditions began to fade.

But when Bulgaria transitioned to a democracy around 1990, the Jewish community was reborn. Shalom was created and began reviving Jewish life through social, educational, and welfare programming for youth, families, and the elderly — all in partnership with JDC, which has enjoyed a productive and collaborative decades-long relationship with Bulgarian Jewry.

Acclaimed singer Lika Eshkenazi serenades the Bulgarian Jewish community in front of the Sofia Synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Today, the Jewish community of Bulgaria is still relatively small — about 6,000 people, most of whom live in Sofia — but dynamic. During my week in Sofia, I saw many examples of the community’s vibrancy. At the Beit Ha’am, we joined a few of the weekly classes (aerobics, Israeli dance, and laughing yoga) provided for elderly community members. We visited the Ronald S. Lauder Day School, which opened in 2019 and is already filled nearly beyond capacity, and we learned that plans are in progress to build a gorgeous new campus. The managers of Shalom’s welfare programs described their work supporting the community’s most vulnerable members, and current and former madrichim (counselors) told us about their fun, meaningful, and identity-shaping experiences working at Jewgaton, the community’s JDC-supported summer camp. 

For all these successes, the Jewish community in Bulgaria still faces challenges: How do we engage young adults in Jewish life? How can we increase synagogue attendance? How do we empower community members to incorporate Jewish rituals into their home lives? What’s the appropriate balance to strike between adherence to tradition and changing with the times? These questions sounded quite familiar to me, as the communities to which I’ve belonged in Baltimore and Boston throughout my life are grappling with them too. One of several powerful takeaways from my time in Sofia was this realization that communities of different sizes, denominations, and histories around the world have been and are still trying to answer the same questions. 

In the last 30 years, Bulgaria’s Jewish community has reestablished old traditions, developed new programs, and protected the continuity of Jewish life in Bulgaria.

Our observance of Simchat Torah suggests that avoiding interruptions helps maintain our religious traditions. Bulgaria’s Jewish community learned through experience that interruptions to their institutional supports and religious practices threatened the community’s existence. And yet, in the last 30 years, the community has been able to start again, to reestablish old traditions and develop new programs to sustain itself, and in doing so, protect the continuity of Jewish life in Bulgaria.

I am inspired by the lesson this community’s story offers about the ways in which we can work to maintain our Jewish faith and culture. 

Rachel Shapiro is an educator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born and raised in Baltimore, Rachel moved to the Boston area to attend Tufts University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies and a Master of Arts in Teaching. A high school history teacher for the last 7 years, Rachel is passionate about supporting and empowering young people. She was thrilled to feed her love of history and travel, as well as her curiosity about Jewish communities around the world on the JDC Entwine-CJP Inside Jewish Bulgaria trip in September. 

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