Community in Bulgaria - World Jewish Congress
Bulgaria

According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), Bulgaria is home to between 2,000 and 6,000 Jews. Almost the entire population is Sephardic, with a majority being of elderly age. The Bulgarian Jewish community has steadily grown in recent years with a focused effort on restoring communal Jewish knowledge. Moreover, there are no overt manifestations of antisemitism in Bulgaria, as Jews enjoy participation in all aspects of Bulgarian public life, including high offices of state.

The Bulgarian Jewish community is represented by the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria-Shalom – the Bulgarian WJC affiliate.

WJC Affiliate
Organization of Jews in Bulgaria-Shalom (Организация на евреите в България "Шалом")

Telephone:
+359 2 40 06 301
Fax:
+ 359 2 988 46 937
Email: 
info@shalom.bg
Website:
http://www.shalom.bg/

Dr. Alexander Oscar, Shalom President & WJC Vice-President
Social Media

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History

Archeological findings indicate the presence of Jews in what is today Bulgaria as far back as the Roman period. After the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681, a number of Jews persecuted in the Byzantine Empire are believed to have settled in Bulgaria.

In the 14th century, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331–1371) married a Jewish woman, Sarah (renamed Theodora), who converted to Christianity and had considerable influence in the court. A series of legends arose around Theodora, who is still venerated in Bulgaria as a saint-like figure today; their son, Ivan Shishman, is also regarded as a great national hero. Nevertheless, in 1352, a church council led the excommunication of "heretics," and three Jews were sentenced to death and later killed by a mob, even though the Tsar had lifted the convictions.

By the time the Ottomans overran the Bulgarian Empire, there were sizeable Jewish communities in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Plovdiv (Philippopolis), and Stara Zagora. A wave of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Bulgaria after being banished from Bavaria in 1470. The first Sephardic immigration wave to Bulgarian commenced after 1494, with the newcomers settling in the established centers of the Jewish population.

The modern capital, Sofia, had distinct communities of Romaniots, Ashkenazim and Sephardim until 1640, when a single rabbi was appointed for all three. In the 17th century, the ideas of Sabbatai Zevi became popular in Bulgaria, with supporters of his movement, like Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, active in Sofia. Jews continued to settle in various parts of the country, extending their economic activities due to the new rights extended to them.

In 1878, after Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule following the Russo–Turkish War, Jews were granted equal rights by the Treaty of Berlin. The rabbi of Sofia, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, and three other Jews welcomed the Russian forces in the city and took part in the Constituent National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879. However, signs of antisemitism and discrimination soon began to emerge. Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian Army and participated in the Serbo–Bulgarian War in 1885.

The Treaty of Neuilly following World War I emphasized the Jews' right to equality, yet antisemitism began to spread and was indirectly promoted by the governments of the time. The Bulgarian Jewish community found much of the anger and resentment that the gentile population had, concerning their country’s destitute state of affairs directed at it, and as a result, the Jewish population in Bulgaria began to decline.

The interwar years saw the majority of Bulgarian Jewry concentrated in Sofia, with much of the community self-employed and engaged in commerce. There was a flourishing of Zionism during this period, despite the younger generation displaying a sense of assimilation by speaking Bulgarian instead of Ladino, the language of their fathers. However, all of this occurred under persistent and prevalent antisemitism that was inextricable to the country’s alignment with Nazi Germany.

Under the Communist regime following World War II, the Bulgarian Jewish community found itself cut off from the rest of the world and wider Jewish organizations. As Bulgaria became more and more communist, there was a concentrated effort to wipe out Zionist manifestations in the country. Bulgarian communist authorities viewed outside influences with deep suspicion and disdain, with “illegal” movement from Bulgaria to Israel considered a crime at one point.

This strict suppression was later relaxed as the postwar years gave way to the latter half of the 20th century. For example, the Bulgarian Jewish Community sent observers to the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assemblies in 1975 and 1981, as well as to the WJC European Branch meetings. Within the country, Solomon Razanis served on the Bulgarian Supreme Court from 1966 to 1992. On a more cultural note, a film that showed the deportation of Bulgarian Jews during World War II, The Transports for the Death Camps Have Not Yet Departed, won the National Front Prize at the third festival of short films, held at Plovdiv in 1978.

Such a development is demonstrative of Bulgarian Jewry today. The Jewish community enjoys a sense of stability it has not been afforded in the past, including inclusion in various facets of broader Bulgarian life. Solomon Isaac Passy served as Foreign Minister from 2001 to 2005 and was notable for negotiating and signing Bulgaria’s accession into the European Union and NATO.

The Years of the Holocaust

On the eve of the Shoah, nearly 50,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria, half of them in Sofia. Recognizing the growing danger for Bulgarian Jewry, a group of Bulgarian Jews attempted to sail away to safety aboard the Salvador, only for a storm to drown a sizeable number of passengers. The survivors made their way to Haifa only for British authorities to arrest and intern them in camps until May 1942.

Steadily institutionalized antisemitism continued to grow in Nazi-aligned Bulgaria, and in 1941, the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law on the Protection of the Nation, which introduced numerous legal restrictions on Jews. Specifically, it prohibited them from voting, running for office, working in government, serving in the army, marrying or cohabitating with ethnic Bulgarians, using Bulgarian names, and/or owning rural land. Jewish leaders were not alone in protesting against the law; the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Workers' Party officials, professional organizations, and a group of 21 writers also opposed it.

Bulgarian Jews were saved from deportation to the German death camps largely due to the energetic intervention of non-Jewish Bulgarians, including the clergy, and the liberal intelligentsia. The Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia, however, were stripped of their property and deported by the Bulgarians to German death camps. In the years immediately following the war, about 90% of Bulgarian Jewry emigrated to Israel.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that as of 2011, Bulgaria was home to between 2,000 and 6,000 Jews, out of a total population of 7,101,510 – that is, 0.028% of the population.

Most Jews live in Sofia but there are smaller communities in Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas and Ruse.

Community Life

Bulgarian Jews are represented by the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, also known as “Shalom”, which is an independent, nonpartisan, voluntary, democratic, organization of the Jews in Bulgaria. Its main goals are to uphold Jewish traditions and values, to guarantee the rights of its members and all the Jews in the country; to prevent all forms of racism and antisemitism, and to preserve historical monuments such as synagogues and cemeteries.

The organization aims to preserve and develop Jewish ethnic, linguistic, and cultural traditions, to defend the constitutional rights of its members and all Jews in the country, and to oppose any form of fascism, totalitarianism, racism, antisemitism, and national chauvinism. Its goals are achieved through the study and popularization of Jewish history and ethnic traditions, the celebration of holidays and anniversaries, the organization of artistic events such as exhibitions, musical and theatre performances, and concerts, and the hosting of meetings, symposiums, workshops, etc.

Shalom publishes the newspaper Evreiski Vesti, the La Estreya magazine, books, brochures, and other printed editions. It works to maintain the historical heritage, such as synagogues, graves, and monuments and also administers and manages both its property and the property distributed to third parties. It gives social, health, and educational benefits, participates in acts of solidarity, and provides social assistance across the country and abroad.

In addition, Jewish organizations such as Maccabi, WIZO, World Jewry, and B’nai B’rith, as well as the state of Israel, contribute greatly to the reestablishment of the Bulgarian Jewish Community in Sofia.

Religious and Cultural Life

The level of religious observance in Bulgaria is low, and many Bulgarian Jews come from mixed marriages. Most Bulgarian Jews identify themselves in a national-ethnic, rather than a religious, context.

There are only two functioning synagogues in Bulgaria, located in Sofia and Plovdiv. Services are held on Shabbat, but most Jews only congregate on important Jewish holidays. Notably, the synagogue in Sofia celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009 with Bulgaria’s president and many Jewish leaders from Europe. The neo-Byzantine synagogue is one of the largest Sephardic buildings in the world and among the largest synagogues in Europe.

Due to emigration and assimilation, the elderly account for a large share of the population. However, despite the high rate of intermarriage, many children have begun to return to Judaism.

Kosher Food

Kosher food is somewhat scare in Bulgaria and is mostly limited to Sofia. There is a Jewish old-age home in Sofia with a kitchen that provides kosher food for elderly people.

Jewish Education

In terms of secondary education, the Hebrew Scientific Institute was founded in 1947 and has been part of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences since the 1950s. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has published numerous works on Jewish subjects, including a collection detailing the economic history of Balkan Jews. Additionally, Jewish secondary and adult education is available through the means of the Oheb Shalom Congregation (OJB Shalom).

Jewish education in Bulgaria has recently experienced a resurgence on both a formal and informal level. In 1991, after the adoption of the law made it mandatory for students to study the country's mother tongue, OJB Shalom partnered with international Jewish organizations to organize Hebrew classes in 134 Dimcho Debelyanov secondary schools throughout Sofia.

In 1997, The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation became a major sponsor and partner of the Jewish school in Sofia that is known today as the Lauder Ort Jewish Elementary and High School. The Foundation provided repairs and renovations of the school building and created modern classrooms for the study of Hebrew. Hebrew teachers are trained and qualified annually and apply modern methods of teaching. The school has received the status of being a public school teaching Hebrew as a primary foreign language.

Much of the education that members of the Jewish community in Bulgaria receive, from outside of formal institutions, is conducted through programs and activities of Shalom. Founded on the principles of learning through experience and job sharing, the activities of OJB Shalom are, for the most part, experience-based. The purpose of the organization is to educate its members beginning from infancy with the principles of Judaism, Sephardic Jewish traditions, and the education connected with the Jewish State of Israel.

Youth

Jewish teenagers in Bulgaria can participate in the activities of the local chapters of international movements such as BBYO and Hashomer Hatzair. OJB Shalom also offers summer camps for children, seminars about Judaism, and classes on Jewish songs and dances.

Jewish Media

Despite the small size of the community, there are Jewish Bulgarian periodicals and publications. The organization OJB Shalom publishes the newspaper Evreiski vesti, La Estreya magazine, books, brochures and other printed editions. An update on the activities of the community can also be found on OJB Shalom’s website: https://www.shalom.bg/en/.

Information for Visitors
Relations with Israel

Israel and Bulgaria have full diplomatic relations.

Embassy of Israel in Bulgaria
1 Bulgaria Square
BG-1436 Sofia

Telephone: +359 2 543 201
Fax: +359 2 521 101
Email: info@sofia.mfa.gov.il
Website: http://sofia.mfa.gov.il/

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