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Around the Jewish World: Only 200 Strong, Macedonia’s Jews Celebrate Unity and New Synagogue

“I’m so excited I can hardly talk,” said Yehuda Alboher.

Born in the Macedonian town of Bitola, Alboher immigrated with his family to Palestine as a small child in 1932.

Over the weekend he was formally presented with a Macedonian passport during ceremonies marking both the destruction during the Holocaust of Macedonian Jewry and the fledgling revival of a contemporary Jewish community.

Fifty-seven years ago this month, more than 7,000 Jews from Bitola, Skopje and elsewhere in Macedonia were loaded into boxcars and deported en masse to Treblinka. Only a handful survived. Centuries of Jewish life and culture were wiped out without a trace.

This week Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, other senior officials, religious leaders and diplomats joined Jews for a series of commemorative events.

But solemn mourning was combined with joyous celebration.

Though Macedonia’s Jewish community today has only 200 members, the tight-knit group has been fighting to revive Jewish traditions, Jewish identity and Jewish life in this newly independent country.

This year they chose the March 11 anniversary of the deportations to inaugurate a new synagogue.

The first new synagogue to be built in the Balkans since the end of World War II, it represents a powerful symbol of Jewish survival and post-Communist renewal.

“It is the fulfillment of a dream,” said the president of Macedonia’s Jewish community, Viktor Mizrachi.

“A person standing alone is like a solitary tree on a mountain,” he said. “It can break easily in the wind. We in our community are like 200 trees standing together, with 30 strong oaks among us — our young people.”

The new Bet Yaakov Synagogue, built on the top floor of the Jewish community center building in downtown Skopje, is a simple sanctuary decorated with striking stained-glass windows illustrating Jewish symbols.

Its construction was funded primarily by members of congregation Beth Israel of Phoenix, who raised $25,000 for the project.

“Essentially we `adopted’ the Macedonian community,” said Ilene Lashinsky, a Phoenix lawyer who learned of the community’s dream to build a synagogue when she worked in Skopje three years ago.

Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel, the chief rabbi of Yugoslavia, traveled from Belgrade to conduct the first synagogue services to be held in Skopje for half a century.

Asiel, who will travel to Skopje once a month to conduct services, welcomed the congregation with the traditional Sabbath greeting in Ladino, the historic language of Sephardi Jews which, like the people who spoke it, was all but wiped out in the Shoah: “Buen Shabbat!”

The new sanctuary was filled to overflowing, with Jews from neighboring Balkan countries and from Israel, the United States and Canada joining local people.

Among the congregation were U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Michael Einik and his Israeli-born wife.

Also in attendance was an emotional Mois Rubisa, the only remaining Jew in the Macedonian town of Stip, who was taking part in his first Jewish communal activity.

“We didn’t know he existed until a couple of years ago,” said the general secretary of the Jewish community, Goran Sadikarijo.

Local television filmed the start of services as Asiel fixed a mezuzah on the door and Torah scrolls were carried into the sanctuary and placed in the new Ark.

The Jewish community of Bulgaria donated one scroll, and the Pasadena Jewish Center and Temple in California donated the other.

“One has to believe in destiny,” said Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in North Orange County, Calif., who brought the Torah to Skopje from California. “In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the dedication of the sanctuary in the desert, and the Haftorah is about the building of the Solomonic Temple.”

As part of events surrounding the twin Holocaust commemoration and synagogue inauguration, Prime Minister Georgievski joined other dignitaries at a gala public concert at which New York Cantor Joseph Malovany performed.

Later, Georgievski met with Macedonian Jewish leaders and representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish Committee, and renewed his pledge to finance construction of a Holocaust Museum and education center on the site of Skopje’s former Jewish quarter.

He also expressed satisfaction that a Jewish presence was again becoming visible in Macedonia.

Macedonian Jews have been particularly active in the wake of last year’s NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Nine months ago, they formed an organization called Dobre Volje, or Good Will, closely coordinated with the JDC and dedicated to channeling nonsectarian humanitarian aid to Albanian, Serbian and Gypsy refugees who fled to Macedonia during and after the conflict.

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