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My Connection to Global Jewish Peoplehood

Read this story in Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple

This past summer, I traveled to Bulgaria with my youth group, BBYO, which is a Jewish youth movement for students in grades 8-12. It offers Jewish teens a chance to connect through Jewish Heritage, community, leadership and friends. I am a part of the Ohio Northern Region, which consists of teens from Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown. Throughout my four years of high school BBYO has been a place for me to go and be the best I can be. It has provided me with many opportunities that I feel very fortunate to have. Currently I am serving on the Regional Board as the Vice President of Membership. My job is to make sure our region continues to grow and build relationships in order to give more Jewish teens the meaningful experiences we have been given.

The trip we took was called “Ambassadors to Bulgaria”. It was a really amazing experience because not only was I with Jewish teens from all over America, but I was with Jewish teens from all over Europe. I met kids from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Bosnia, Latvia, Serbia, Ukraine, Ireland, the U.K., and Croatia. Meeting these kids who are the same age as me but who come from completely different backgrounds has given me a strong sense of cultural differences.

I was one of about 50 North American teens that BBYO sent on the mission to Bulgaria, and being a part of that group helped me see what it is like to be Jewish from a different perspective. We were there to take part in community service projects, build lasting relationships with local Jewish teens from Eastern Europe, to tour the country, and to get to know Bulgaria’s unique past.

When we arrived at the airport in Sophia, Bulgaria, we had a chance to introduce ourselves and get to know the other kids on the trip. I became friends with two boys from Serbia, Yovan and David. The two of them were best friends from home. They shared a story with me about when they first met. Yovan stated that he met David at school, and after finding out he was Jewish he was totally shocked. He went home to his parents and told them, “Mom! Dad! I just met a Jew!” To which they responded, “Yovan….YOU are a Jew..” From then on Yovan and David found their Jewish Identity through their BBYO community and have been friends since.

The trip allowed us to complete 24 hours of community service; we cleaned up the Jewish cemetery, repaired the local Synagogue, and spent time with Bulgarian orphans. When cleaning the cemetery, we noticed something somewhat disturbing. There was a very distinct line between the Jewish side and the Christian side. The Christian side was taken care of: flowers, clean grounds, and freshly grown grass. The Jewish side was what we were tying to repair. There was trash scattering the ground, twigs and branches covering the graves, and it was impossible to maneuver around the area. This really opened my eyes. I knew that anti-Semitism still existed all over the world, but I never saw anything similar to this. The lack of care for something so sentimental was alarming. It made me appreciate the support we have through our Jewish community in Cleveland.

Another greatly meaningful part of the trip was meeting the Bulgarian orphans. The look on the orphans’ faces when they stepped off the bus and saw us was something I will never forget. We paired up with a Bulgarian teen in order to communicate better with the children, and just spent time playing, talking, and eating. I was with a little girl named Stephanie. When she arrived, my friend Kati and I took her to eat lunch. She didn’t like the pizza too much, but her eyes lit up completely when we pulled out the chocolate cake. She finished one piece in around 2 minutes, and started begging us for a second piece. I later found out that at the orphanage, they only have two meals a day, that consist of some bland soup broth and crackers. Learning this almost brought me to tears. I realized that these kids have a terribly rough life, and that it is up to us to provide G’milut Hasadeem, acts of love and kindness. Upstairs at our hotel we had set up tables with toys, candy, clothes, and everything a kid could ever want. Stephanie ran towards a pair of bright pink shoes, and Kati and I helped her put them on. She ran around with joy. It was clear that us spending time with the orphans for the day was truly a mitzvah. It made me thankful for everything I have, and made me realize that no matter how hard I think life is at points, it doesn’t nearly compare to the lives of these children. The happiness we were able to bring to these 3-5 year old children was an experience for which I am beyond thankful.

On the trip we learned all about the Bulgarian culture by meeting with some of the elderly members of the community. In groups of three or four, we were assigned a house to walk to. When I reached the house of the lady that was going to tell us the story of the Jews, she embraced us and could not have been happier that we were there. As much as it meant to us, to learn her story and to see the Jews prevailing, it must have meant the same amount to her that we were there to listen and educate ourselves about the history of that country. It was an amazing experience to hear about their lives in Bulgaria, and even more amazing to hear how Bulgaria saved their Jews during the Holocaust. Bulgaria’s story is such a unique one, and it really inspired all of us to always stand up for what we believe in. In Plovdiv, Bishop Metropolitan Kiril, stood in front of the transport train to keep it from starting its journey to the concentration camps. A priest at the same church, Dimtar Petroff, forged baptismal certificates for more than 1,000 Jews in Plovdiv so they could avoid deportation. The Bulgarian people stood up for their community, they had been living peacefully together for a millennia, and this is what saved the majority of the Bulgarian Jewish population.

When I look back and reflect on my life so far, I try to figure out what has made me who I am. Some people identify with their religion. Some people identify with their ethnicity. I identify myself through my experiences and the knowledge I gain from those experiences. Bulgaria was an experience I will never forget. It made me feel connected to the global Jewish peoplehood. I know that even though we are all from different countries and speak different languages, we all share a common bond that we will pass on generation to generation. It was crazy being in a place that is surrounded by so few Jews, with only two temples in the whole country. I feel so fortunate to be able to practice my Judaism in such an amazing community. It is my hope that one day Jews all around the world will be able to practice as freely as we do here, and to openly show their love for Judaism as much as I do. Shabbat Shalom.

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