Shabbathon in Sofia: Sephardic Rabbis Gathering

The 75th anniversary of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943, and the commemorations for the Jews from Thrace and former Yugoslavia, who were murdered by the Nazis, are slowly coming to an end. During the past months, countless events took place in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Israel and even in Russia.

Books were published, Presidents of some of the countries affected, diplomats, Holocaust survivors and other community members came together. A delegation of Bulgarian Jews from Israel took part in most events.

The World Jewish Congress’ Ronald Lauder and Robert Singer came to Sofia, in order to be part of it. Shalom, the organization of the Bulgarian Jews, bent over backwards to make it all happen. The 75th anniversary got quite hectic at times, at least behind the scenes.

In the middle of it all, yet another meeting took place, which may have been overlooked by people who were not directly involved in the organization: The Shabbathon brought together mostly Sephardic Rabbis from the region, and from overseas.

Nine Rabbis came to Bulgaria for the Shabbathon, from Croatia, Greece, Israel, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and the United States of America. “One of the guests was a Rabbi who is part of the Sephardic Brotherhood of New York”, Sofia Cohen, the Head of the Central Israelite Spiritual Council in Sofia, told this publication.

Sofia Synagogue. Photo by Solomon Frances

“These are people who are of Sephardic, Balkanite origin. His name is Rabbi Nissim Elnecave. He was so emotional about what happened here. It was touching to watch him.”

Rabbi Elnecave himself said he had been happy “to find a vibrant and young group of leaders from all of these communities. The mood was very positive and exciting. We all met at dinner where we were introduced to the Ambassador of Israel in Bulgaria, Illit Lilian. She spoke about the history and major Aliyah that went to Israel from Bulgaria since the birth of the State of Israel and their many contributions.”

“It was comforting to see how this community has been so involved in Israel and that they still hold dear and stay connected to Bulgaria”, Rabbi Elnecave stated.

“The first Shabbathon of this kind took place in Istanbul in November of last year”, Sofia Cohen says. “It was Sam Amiel’s idea. He is the representative of the JDC for Bulgaria. When he took over this position and met all of these communities, he came to the conclusion that it would be good to bring the religious communities and Rabbis together.”

The participants of the second Shabbathon definitely agree: “While participating three days in the life of the Jewish communities of Sofia and Plovdiv, we saw the efforts of the local Community to bring back and develop the community life”, Rabbi Monis Halegoua from Athens said. “We were so glad to feel and be members of the Sephardic community of the Balkans.”

“We felt like home. It was also an opportunity for us to find out a lot about the history of the Bulgarian Jews that were protected and saved by their neighbors and friends.” Rabbi Halegoua also said it was time “to revive the Jewish Sephardic customs.”

Rabbi Yoel Yiffrah (Sofia Synagogue). Photo: Solomon Frances.

According to Yoel Yiffrah, the Israeli Chief Rabbi at Sofia Synagogue, the Shabbathon “was a unique gathering of communities of Spanish Jews, something that has not been done for many years. It was amazing to see that, after 500 years, there are still so many things in common, in prayers, in halakhic rulings, in language, in the way of thinking, and even in food in all communities.”

The program for the participating Rabbis was full. “We had prayers at Sofia Synagogue and Plovdiv Synagogue”, Sofia Cohen told Magazine79. “We also had meetings at the retirment home, with the Ladino Speakers Club and the Holocaust Survivors Club. In addition, we had meetings with kids and their families.”

“I am very grateful to Sam and the JDC for starting these meetings. They give us strength, and they gave me ideas on how we can go ahead. That is why I proposed having the second event in Sofia.”

With their second edition in Sofia, the Shabbathons have become something like a tradition, which is to be continued.

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