Deutschland here we go!
Los Ladinos

In June I spent a week visiting a summer camp for the elderly that took place in Bankya, a village on the outskirts of Sofia. For over a decade the JDC and the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria (OJB) organizes a week long summer camp for Bulgaria’s seasoned and most enthusiastic Jewish patrons. This past week, 200 people, 65 +, schlepped from near and far to attend Bulgaria’s annual, one week Jewish summer camp.

Hanging out without the elderly, aged, matured, wise, or however you would like to phrase it, can be a blessing and/or a punishment. At the beginning of the week, I wasn’t sure what to except as I wondered how I would communicate with people since I do not speak proper Bulgarian.  I quickly learned that a significant number of the participants spoke Ladino and Hebrew. Although there were varying levels of Ladino proficiency, almost everyone had been raised in a Ladino speaking home. Many Bulgarian Jews trace their roots back to Spain and therefore have carried on the Ladino language and culture for centuries, since the expulsion from Spain in 1492. To my amazement, many people also spoke Hebrew. Back in the day, before communism drowned society of any and all beliefs, it was common for Jews to study at Jewish schools and to learn Hebrew.  Also, Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement, was popular among this generation and continues to be active in Bulgaria today. Hashomer Hatzair was a place to learn about Israel, speak Hebrew, and experience Jewish culture in a community setting.  

To my amazement it was almost impossible to find a moment to rest. As grandmas and grandpas tend to be, news travels fast and without hesitation. It did not take more than a day for word to spread that the American girl present, spoke Hebrew and could converse in Ladino. At some point I started to feel like a bit of a celebrity.  People were constantly approaching me and would begin to speak before even introducing themselves.

Prior to the week, I imagined I would chit chat a lot and maybe learn to play Mahjong. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The whole week I was deep in conversations with person after couple after person after siblings and old friends, and loving it! The stories were unimaginable and breathtaking. From love in the first grade, to ‘selling’ pharmaceuticals in Cuba in the 70s, to being a communist and locked up, and more, the stories were outlandish and I couldn’t get enough of it! Check out the people I met below and hear their stories.

Brother & Sister

Nissem Haz

A man of man trades, who is most well-known for his superior cantorial skills. Nissem explained that he comes from a long heritage of vocal talent, which I learned as he told me about his father who was also a Hazan. As a young man, Nissem studied and sang at the Bulgarian National Opera. 

Niseem said to me, “Quando la pessoa canta, essa internacional.”  In English, “When a person sings it is international.”

What he meant was that the language of music transcends all boundaries and knows no limits. Nissem sang for me songs in Hebrew, French, & Ladino. His favorite song is “Mi Amor” a beloved among the Sofia Ladino singer.

Nissem has been married 58 years, to a woman he loves dearly and who is a Ladino writer in the Jewish community of Sofia. Nissem is currently and active member of the Sofia Jewish community Ladino Choir.



a woman of many wonders! She works as a journalist and writes for the Sofia Jewish community newsletter. She lives at the Beit Avot (the Jewish Parent’s home in Sofia) and is a connoisseur of Ladino culture and literature. The book she is holding is called La boss de curacao, a collection of ladino poems written in the Bulgarian language, which she gave to me as a memory from this past week at the camp.


Yosef aka Professor Sudoku

Yosef gave me a Sudoku sheet to try but he beat me to the finish!


Born and raised in Bulgaria and spent much of his professional career working abroad in Cuba and Argentina. Yosef spoke with a firm voice and years of philosophy under his belt.   

Yosef told me about life in Bulgaria during WW2. During the war, Yosef was a teenager but today, he still remembers the anti-Semitism he endured for being Jewish. In our conversation he recalled how he could not leave his home from six in the evening until eight in the morning the next day. He described how back then this kind of rule was unfortunately accepted without resistance. He also remembers going to the city center and seeing signs above shops, which read Jews are forbidden. As we spoke, Yosef explained that it took two to three years after the war for life to return to normal in Bulgaria.

Today Yosef is a great grandfather and his kids and grandchildren live in Spain and Canada.



Sarina, known by many as Bebe

Bebe is a woman of strength and great respect in the Bulgarian Jewish community. Bebe ran the synagogue in Plovidiv for many years and recently her daughter, Emma, is now in charge of the synagogue.



Polly from Plovdiv!

Polly was the life of the party and the yenta that new best! Polly is a great -great grandmother and lives adjacent to the synagogue yard in Plovdiv. From her second floor window she is well-known for easily poking her head out and joining conversation from the yard! 

She told me several times, “Los Bulgaritos no e buenos!”


Rivka & Schmuel Ben Nun, from Plovdiv

One of the cutesiest most jovial couples I’ve ever met!

Rivka and Schmuel, 92 years old, met in Kita Aleph (the first grade) and according to Schmuel that was when it all began.  After 86 years it seems like they fell in love just yesterday.  

Both Rivka and Schmuel speak excellent Hebrew and ladino. Like many others, they learned Hebrew at school growing up and spoke ladino in the home. Rivka has a brother, Haim, who lives in Israel. Schmuel is currently the Hazan (cantor) for the Jewish community in Plovdiv.

Nora (left) & Sophie (right) from Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Sophie was the first person I met this week. She grabbed me from the crowd and said in an urgent voice, “Do you speak Hebrew!?” I replied, “Yes,” and that was how it all began.

Both Nora and Sophie spoke excellent Hebrew, which they had learned growing up in school and while participating in Hashomer Hatzair.

Nora and Sophie are both 92 years old, retired doctors and share an entwined past. The two met when Nora was in prison during World War 2 because of her communist affiliations and engagements. As Nora put it, she wasn’t the silent type. Sophie informed me the she was also a communist but was not as hard-core as Nora. During the war Sophie met Nora while delivering food and ‘other things’ to her fellow comrades in prison, whom Nora was among. After the war both women enrolled in medical school and met again and that is where their lifelong friendship began.


Josef and Christina

After 57 years together, they are still all giggles!

Josef and Christina spent eight years living in Israel from 1994 to 2002 and today most of their family, kids and grandchildren, resides in Israel. 

Since 2002 Josef and Christina have been coming to camp (continual); it is 6 days a year that they would not miss for anything else!

Today they split their time between Bulgaria and Israel, spending about 8 months in Israel and 3 to 4 months in Bulgaria each year.


Leon Mordechi Madjar

From Sofia, born and raised, and learned to speak ladino growing up within his family. Leon spent much of our conversations trying to convince me to call his bachelor son who currently lives in Sofia. Leon was quick to give me a biography and spared no details. Despite my efforts to explain to him that dating today is a bit different from way back in his day, he still insisted!


Dora Anavi

Dora is from Plovdiv and spoke solid Ladino. She is 82 years old and has 2 children, who have given her 4 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. She has family in Eilat, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles. About a year ago Nora’s husband passed away.

Los Hermanos

Two brothers from Sofia, full of Ladino jokes!

Spring Break Bulgaria, 2013

Potatoes + Onions = Latkas!

Together with the student coordinator, we planned a latka activity at the Jewish students club in Belgrade, which is supported by the JDC. We made latkas from scratch and fried them using a portable camping gas stove! We don’t always have all of the proper materials here but we always find ways to improvise!

here is the recipe we used!

Potatoes + Onions = Latkas! Together with the student coordinator, we planned a latka activity at the Jewish students club in Belgrade, which is supported by the JDC. We made latkas from scratch and fried them using a portable camping gas stove! We don’t always have all of the proper materials here but we always find ways to improvise! here is the recipe we used!

a pre- Chanukah activity in Novi Sad!

Yesterday evening I traveled to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, located in a northern region set on the Danube River. The Jewish community in Novi Sad is small in number but strong in spirit and inspiration. Communities in Serbia have built their kids programs based on an informal education model, so developing an activity allowed me to tap my creativity and share what I love best, baking!

With 16 kids from ages 0 to 15, some mothers, and the director of the Kids programs and her daughter, we taught the children the four different Hebrew letters on the Dreidel and explained their meaning for playing the game Dreidel. We also had the older kids explain to the younger kids the story of Chanukah and the meaning behind Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. Then we gave each group the materials to make cookie dough that they could then use to shape in the form of Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, Hei, & Shin. We did not foresee that when the cookies would come out of the oven, they would have all melted together!

Everyone had a great time! Even the mothers, who had initially sat back, slowly came to the group and stated to participate. It turned out that they had crazy cookie shaping skills to offer us! It was truly a wonderful experience for me. Having worked in Jewish communities for over two years now in Germany and most recently in Serbia, I’ve never walked into a community blindly and alone before and been immediately welcomed.

The community holds weekly kids program from 5pm to 7pm, every Sunday evening. It is obvious that the families who come really care about their children’s Jewish identity as I am sure this is not the most convenient time as Sunday evening the week is ending and everything for the next week has already started to arrive in full force. In Serbia Jews make an active decision to be Jewish every day, every week and every year. There is not the structure or institutions in place that we are so familiar with in the US, which allow us to be Jewish in all aspect of our life and in society, with very little effort or thought required. Although I have a lot to give this year, I also have a lot to learn.

More to come on Chanukah events from Serbia!

JDC wrote an article on my time and work in Germany from 2010 to 2012.

I lived in Germany for two years working with Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, who in the last 20 years moved to Germany and began for the first time to rediscover their Jewish identity.


Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland und дочекати Serbia!

Aufweidersehen Deutschland und дочекати  Serbia!

It was really hard to leave Germany. Over the past two year, Germany became my home and my friends there became my family. I could have never imagined finding such amazing roommates over the internet that would grow to be like brothers.  I learned more in Germany about myself than I ever imagined, as I was challenged in ways that I had never been tested before. I had several high points, followed by low points, which have made me the stronger individual that I am today.  

Although I arrived just 3 weeks ago, I am still a spring chicken in these parts. Three weeks ago I packed up my life in Germany and moved to Belgrade, Serbia to continue working for the JDC. I will be living in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, for one year, working for the JDC on their programs in Belgrade and in smaller Jewish communities around Serbia. I will also have the opportunity to work on some JDC JRegions initiatives that take place throughout the year.

Since my arrival on October 1st, 2012, I have been all over. Two and half days after I arrived, I set off on a night train to Sofia, Bulgaria with the leaders of the Belgrade youth club. The youth club is a JDC funded project that supports informal Jewish programming for kids, teenagers, and young adults in the Belgrade Jewish community. In Sofia we attended a JRegions weekend-long  regional initiative meeting for young leaders from Balkan countries.

The train ride down was anything less than bumpy, ridiculous, and loads of fun! As expected, we met tons of nice strangers and I even had the unique opportunity of watching smugglers stuff cigarettes into the ceiling of the train! I, being naïve and new to the area, assumed the guy was fixing the lights; however, I later learned when we were stopped at the border for 5.5 hours that the train was really a smugglers express paradise…!

The meeting in Sofia was a great learning experience as I met Jewish leaders from almost every major Balkan community. Listening to people’s ideas and impressions gave me my first look into the needs and realities of Balkan Jewry.

After the Seminar the Belgrade team and I stayed to meet local community staff from the Sofia community to exchange ideas and learn about each other programs. The meetings also added to my understanding of JDC’s role and what Jewish life is today in the Balkans. It was interesting for me to learn about the different directions that these two communities had taken and why. The Belgrade youth club remains an informal center and the Sofia youth center has become a formal institution. Despite their proximity and sharing a border, the Serbian and Bulgarian Jewish communities have taken different approaches to developing Jewish life and community.  I know very little about Balkan Jewish communities and I look forward this year to learning more and sharing my experiences.

3.5 days after arriving back from Sofia, we (members of the community and I) road-tripped almost 7 hours to Sarajevo, for an EX. Yugoslavian Inter-club Meeting! You are probably wondering what that is, as I was too! Every few months Ex. Yugoslavian Jewish communities organize a weekend of informal activities for young adults from 18 to 35. Jews from all over Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia came! Similar to the notion that I picked up on in Germany, while working with Jews from the FSU, because Jewish life was for so long restricted to the community and not a part of the home family life, people today are attracted to experiences that allow them to contact and connect with other Jews. Although there may be little or no Jewish content present, the want for connection and sense of community is high.  

In the mean time I have been adjusting well to life in Belgrade. I can say for certain that people here love to enjoy life and there is a very relaxed atmosphere. Belgrade is a pretty normal city beside the “expected nuances….”

More impressions to come!

Recently I was at   in Berlin!

If you are not familiar with Limmud, it is a place…

  • where Jews of all religious and political backgrounds meet to learn, discuss and celebrate together
  • where you can expect to meet Jews who are different from you
  • where you can learn something new, whether you know nothing or you are a rabbi or professor
  • where participants themselves decide what they want to learn, and what they want to teach
  • where you can offer a presentation on any Jewish theme in which you have expertise
  • where you can attend or offer workshops in German, English or Russian
  • where there is room for the broad diversity of Jewish topics: religion, tradition, politics, society, literature, art, music and more
  • where everyone of all ages is welcome!

This past Limmud was a four day long festival in the center of Berlin. People, Families, and groups across Germany and Europe came to take part in the festivities. In all, more than 500 people attended. At Limmud I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from inspiring scholars on a wide variety of subjects. I also got to present myself!  I led three sessions- the first on the high school boarding school I attended, the American Hebrew Academy, another on the Zadenu project, a JDC project in Germany that I helped to create last year that connects bar and bat mitzvah students from Germany and the USA and I led an informal session with Yahel (my JSC partner in action) for young adults to “chill” and to get to know each other.

Ruth Calderon leading a Lecture

Above is Ruth Calderon giving a workshop at Limmud.  She is the founder of the Alma Institute in Tel Aviv, which promotes Hebrew culture through Beit Midrash study.  Ruth led two incredible sessions at Limmud.  Her ability to translate Torah and Midrash and at the same time remain engaging was inspiring.  During her session, I was reminded of the importance of Hebrew culture and literature in order to maintain and strengthen my Jewish identity, as she pushed us to understand the relevance in Jewish and Hebrew sources in the context of our own lives today.


Here is a picture of the Bambinim Familyclub kids program.

On Shabbat morning at Limmud, a Jewish walking tour was offered in and around downtown Berlin. One of the first stops on our tour was right behind us, literally, as you turned away from the Limmud entrancement. I hadn’t noticed the memorial because it was an empty space… that clearly my mind accepted as normal, as there are many empty bombed-out spaces in Berlin from WW2. In Berlin, memorials have a reputation of being inconspicuousness; they are there, although they are not always immediately conscious in thought or in sight, even if you are looking head on. What you see in the picture below is an empty space, a place where a family apartment building was before the Second World War. This memorial remembers anyone who lived in the building. The artist researched the families who lived in the building before it was destroyed and made signs for each family and arranged them according to which floor the family had lived on. Many memorials in Berlin are not meant to be intrusive, they are designed to be thoughtful and poignant, catching the eye when you least expect it.

WW2 Memorial