Slovenian Jews mark milestone

A Jewish community member carries a new Torah during a February ceremony in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Ruth E. Gruber)

A Jewish community member carries a new Torah during a February ceremony in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Ruth E. Gruber)

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, March 17 (JTA) — Anyone who has been to a Passover Seder knows the chant of praise called “Dayenu.” Included in the Haggadah, the song recounts, one by one, the steps in the Hebrew passage to freedom from slavery in Egypt. After each verse comes the refrain “Dayenu” — “It would have been enough for us” — sung over and over in a grateful and gratifying crescendo. This year, Slovenian Jews were joined in late February by government officials, diplomats and local Christian and Muslim leaders in responding “Dayenu” to a new version of the chant. Step by step, this version traced the development of the Slovenian Jewish community since their country, once a region of the former Yugoslavia, became independent in 1991. The voices became louder and louder with each verse. “If we had become independent but did not live in peace, Dayenu. If we lived in peace but had not become democratic, Dayenu. “If we had become democratic but had not created a Jewish community, Dayenu. If we had created a Jewish community but had not returned to our sources, Dayenu. If we had returned to our sources but not made them our own, Dayenu.” The occasion was a ceremony formally installing Ariel Haddad as chief rabbi of Slovenia and welcoming a Torah scroll for the community’s new synagogue — the first Torah and synagogue in Slovenia since the Holocaust and the first in the capital, Ljubljana, since Jews were expelled from the city in 1515. The celebration marked a milestone in the development of a community that half a dozen years ago was little more than a handful of scattered individuals. “We are a small community, but Jewish life is beginning here as we speak,” community president Andrej Kozar Beck said. “This is an important moment for the Jewish community and an important moment for Slovenia as a whole.” The inauguration ceremony was held in a hotel ballroom, as the new synagogue — a transformed suite of rooms in the office block housing the Jewish community’s office — would have been too small. The new synagogue has a modern wooden ark and sculptural representations of the Western Wall and the Star of David. It will serve as a temporary prayer room until permanent premises can be found. Like Beck, Haddad and other Jewish community members stressed that the inauguration ceremony had a significance that transcended Jewish revival. “We invited representatives of all the religious communities,” Haddad told JTA. “Having them all standing here together was a statement — and an important one — that needs no other commentary.” A Rome-born Lubavitch rabbi, Haddad is the director of the Jewish Museum in Trieste, Italy, about an hour’s drive from Ljubljana. For the past four years he has been making monthly visits to Slovenia. Now he plans to come weekly, he said, and is looking for an apartment so that his wife and five children can spend each Shabbat in Ljubljana with him. The local Muslim imam, Catholic archbishop and Lutheran leader looked on as Haddad chanted the Shehecheyanu prayer, donned a tallit and accepted his formal post. Local Jews said the interfaith participation was especially significant since the Catholic and Muslim communities recently had been at odds over establishment of a mosque in Ljubljana. Haddad used his inaugural address to affirm tolerance and coexistence. Jews, he said, live in “a world that we share with other nations, other cultures, other languages, and other faiths. “The word I have just uttered — ‘other’ — is the key word to understand what is happening today,” he said. “Today, in this place, we are putting together people, languages and cultures that are at the same time ‘the same’ and ‘other’ to each other.” God “no more wants his or her children to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same,” he said. “We serve God, author of diversity, by respecting diversity.” Later, the Jewish community presented each of the other religious leaders with a copy of a lavish Slovenian-Hebrew edition of the Haggadah that was published last year with government funding — the first published Slovenian translation of a Hebrew religious text. The arrival of the Torah was an example of international and interfaith cooperation, too. People reached out eagerly to touch it as a community member proudly bore it, jingling with silver ornaments, around the hall,. The scroll had been brought to Slovenia from Israel via London, thanks to funds raised by American lawyer Mark Cohen through a private charity he set up called Preserving Tolerance. Keith Miles, a non-Jewish, British businessman friend of Cohen’s who is married to a Slovenian, located the privately owned Torah in Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee administered the finances. In London in January, Slovenian-born Lady Knott, wife of a former British defense minister, hosted a reception for the Torah to raise funds for its silver breastplate and other ornaments. Slovenia’s Jewish community numbers about 150 members, but at least twice as many Jews are believed to live in the country. Once the northernmost republic of the old Yugoslavia, Slovenia declared independence in 1991. Only about 2 million people live in the country. Jews were expelled 500 years ago from most parts of what today is Slovenian territory, and even before the Holocaust few Jews lived there. Most of the Jews who did live in the region were killed in the Holocaust. When Beck took over as community president in the late 1990s, a Jewish organization technically existed, but it carried out almost no cultural, social or religious functions. Since then, aided by the JDC, the community has obtained a meeting room and begun programming activities. This year, it hosted young Jews from Prague for a Purim youth weekend in Ljubljana. In 1999, Haddad organized the community’s first traditional, kosher Seder. By now, it is an annual event held at the downtown Hotel Union, which attracts more than 100 people. Last year, for the first time, the seder used the new, lavishly illustrated Haggadah. “A lot of things changed for Slovenian Jewry since 1991,” Haddad told the crowd at the investiture ceremony. “I am grateful to the Almighty that gave me the opportunity to take part in all of this,” he said. “We have traveled a long way until this day, but a much longer journey is ahead of us, so let us do it together.”

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