Featured Ads

My experience in Sofia, Bulgaria: There’s hope for Bulgarian Judaism

KU Hillel students Raphi Schuster (from left), Haley Seldin, Sam Benenson, Zahava Davis and Mike Johnson enjoy dinner at the Moishe House in Sofia, Bulgaria, with the Moishe House young adult residents.

Near the end of World War II, the United States bombed Sofia, Bulgaria, in hopes it would break the Bulgarian alliance with the Nazi regime. But when a bomb fell into the third oldest synagogue in Europe, it failed to explode.

One of the stops we made on the KU Hillel bi-annual European Leadership Mission to Sofia, Bulgaria, and Bucharest, Romania, this past winter break, we had a chance to see this building, and visiting it made me grateful for its lucky preservation, along with the time and money spent to restore it after the war. We were all in awe over the elaborate interior decorations of golden candelabras, stained glass, a towering dome and an enormous chandelier. Maxim, Sofia’s religious director at the JCC, told us about the history of the temple and its decline after the majority of Jews left for Israel in 1948. He said that he went to a service this past weekend and only nine people were there; despite the 5,000 Jews in Sofia, they could not pull together a minyan for Shabbat. 

If we had not just come from the preschool, I would have been quite scared for the future of Bulgarian Judaism. But those children gave me hope. We divided into three groups and went to the classrooms for different age groups: 2-3 year olds, 4 year olds, and 5 year olds. During about an hour and a half with the kids, we learned English with them and went to their dance class. Our 5-year-olds each told us their name and age and then asked us our names and ages. They sang us a song about Hanukah candles, and then we sang them “I had a little dreidel.” 

English lessons were over quickly, so we went upstairs to the dance room for some aerobics. All of us were blown away by how much dancing and cardio the instructor made us do. We expected some easy dances, but then we had to do spins, jumps, twists, and even burpees — a notoriously exhausting football exercise where one falls flat to the ground from a standing position then springs back up jump as high as they can. We danced to Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and other recent artists. Being 5 years old, the kids were pretty antsy throughout this — and I was making faces at them every time they looked back at us. 

At one point, we were all on the ground crawling around, and I was chasing them in circles until I caught them, and they climbed up on my back and legs. I monster-walked around with a half dozen children hanging off me until the instructor stopped laughing enough to call them back up to the front. 

Playing with these little ones and seeing their love for Hebrew, Judaism and their Jewish community really gave me hope for not just the ancient synagogue but also for the future of Bulgarian Judaism. I have no doubt that their community will continue to grow stronger. The people here are so grateful for everything the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City does for them, and it makes me proud to be part of a community that gives life to all the people I was lucky enough to meet while in Sofia.

Raphi Schuster is a junior at the University of Kansas from Seattle, Washington, a KU Hillel Freshmen Leadership coordinator and Shabbat intern.