Around the Jewish World: Sarajevo Jewish Community Rebuilding After Bosnia War
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Around the Jewish World: Sarajevo Jewish Community Rebuilding After Bosnia War

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It is a bitterly cold day, but the Jewish Community Center of Sarajevo exudes a warm glow. Little more than a year after the U.S.-brokered Dayton agreement led to a cease-fire between Serbs and Muslims in this war-ravaged country, the community center and the people who run it still play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of many Sarajevo residents, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Home to La Benevolencija, a non-sectarian humanitarian organization organized and operated by the Jewish community, the center remains what it has been since the war’s start in 1992 — a lifeline for the hungry, the homeless, the ones in need of hope.

In a city with thousands upon thousands of refugees, where virtually every building has sustained mortar damage and the water supply operates only seven hours a day, the community’s pharmacy, clinic and food kitchen are busier than ever.

On a recent day, as the temperature dipped well below freezing, young and old lined up for free medications, many of which cannot be found elsewhere in the city.

The same lines can be found at the free outpatient clinic, the soup kitchen and the warehouse, which once a month hands out small packages filled with food and other necessities.

Those who are too sick or old to leave their homes receive regular visits from community members.

Yet it is in the center itself, run down from years of use, that the word “community” takes on its true meaning.

Thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of hot pasta, the center is a noisy, lively place with a clear sense of purpose.

During holidays such as Passover, when many of the remaining 600 members of Sarajevo’s Jewish community gather, there is barely enough room to move around.

With the exception of 20 or 30 youngsters, who attend Sunday school classes and occasional parties, the people who come to the center are at least in their 50s.

“The children and most of the very old were evacuated by the Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) during the first year of the war, and most of them have started new lives in Croatia, Serbia, Israel and a dozen other places,” says Jacob Finci, president of both the Jewish community and La Benevolencija.

Of the 1,200 community members who lived in the city prior to the war, Finci says, “exactly 1,003 left.”

“But then a funny thing happened: About 300 people who never before defined themselves as Jewish, but who had the documents to prove they had at least a Jewish grandparent, suddenly declared themselves to us,” he says.

“This strengthened the community at the very time that it was faltering.”

Since the war ended in late 1995, dozens of original community members have returned, usually without their children.

Hundreds more might return if their apartments, now occupied by refugees, are eventually vacated.

Although the Jews that stayed behind during three hellish years of war suffered alongside their predominantly Muslim neighbors, they were never singled out, says Igor Gaon, the country’s sole Jewish parliamentarian.

“The Jewish community has been here for 500 years, since the expulsion from Spain, and we have never experienced anti-Semitism from our Bosnian neighbors,” Gaon says.

“We have always mixed with others in Bosnia and Sarajevo, and we have married into each other’s families.”

During World War II, Gaon says, “our neighbors, including many Muslims, tried to save us from the Germans.”

“Back then, there were 12,000 Jews, but only 1,500 returned after the war,” he says. “Most died in the Holocaust.”

Those Jews who returned to Sarajevo enjoyed a special status, he says.

“The Bosnians were and are aware of how we Jews suffered during the Second World War. They see us as a neutral party, and during this war all three sides respected us.

“It’s not a coincidence that none of our synagogues were badly damaged by the shelling.”

Yehiel Bar-Chaim, the JDC’s director for the former Yugoslavia, believes that it is this carefully guarded neutrality that enabled Sarajevo’s tiny Jewish community to serve as a humanitarian bridge during the darkest days of the civil war.

Recalling how La Benevolencija — with funding from the JDC, the London-based World Jewish Relief and other sources — evacuated and assisted large numbers of non-Jews during the war, Bar-Chaim says, “There is a naturalness of relations between Jews and the rest of society here that is virtually incomprehensible to outsiders.”

He chooses the community’s Sunday school, which was inaugurated during the heaviest days of shelling, as an example.

“Outside of Sarajevo, where could you find a Sunday school with as many non-Jewish kids as Jewish ones? The Jewish kids found a warm environment, a refuge from the war, and they wanted to share it with their friends.

“They would come and say, `Can I bring my best friend?’ No one even thought to say no.”

Whether the Jews’ special place in Bosnian society will continue is unclear. Speaking in hushed tones, a few community members say they fear an eventual rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Although Sarajevo remains a largely secular city, more women are adopting Islamic dress, and several new mosques have opened recently.

Most disturbing, say Jewish community members, is that Iran is playing an increasingly central role in everyday affairs, contributing millions of dollars to aid refugees and rebuild the city.

Some Jews, however, fear that their own universalist policies, and not Islamic fundamentalism, could spell the end of Jewish life in the city.

“I personally think that the future of my children may not be here. That will be up to them,” says Finci, whose sons now reside in Israel.

Finci, whose Muslim-born wife converted to Judaism, says up to 90 percent of Sarajevo’s Jews have intermarried. Few of the non-Jewish spouses opt for conversion.

Although the community has no rabbi, and the overwhelming majority of Jews lead a secular lifestyle, Finci says that “we are not assimilated, just integrated.”

“If we were assimilated, we would consider ourselves Bosnians, not Jews,” he says. “We are Bosnian Jews, with a strong sense of Jewish identity.”

In the midst of this cold, bleak Sarajevo winter, the flame of Judaism continues to burn.

Efforts are under way to introduce a course in Hebrew. A young member of the community, now living in Israel, will return home to conduct the Passover seders. Older community members have formed a club to converse in Ladino, the Spanish-Jewish language spoken traditionally by members of the Sephardi community.

And every Friday night, two dozen community members gather in Sarajevo’s sole active synagogue and pray.

Dressed for the cold — the synagogue is unheated — they pray for peace not only in Bosnia, but in Israel.

At the end of the service, worshipers, both Jewish and otherwise, embrace.

“Shabbat Shalom,” they say. “Shalom, shalom.”

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