SOFIA, Bulgaria (Jan. 2)
Lela Sadikario works to link young Jews of southeastern Europe in much the same way the youth of the Baltics, Central Europe and other small Jewish communities are uniting with brethren across borders.
Starting this week, Sadikario’s job will become a bit tougher.
With Romania and Bulgaria now official members of the European Union, a stark reality is dawning: The E.U. border and visa regime will create new divisions among Jews — psychologically between those inside and outside of the European Union, and physically between those who can travel freely and those who need to apply and pay for a visa to visit.
Logistical hurdles aside, the Jews of Romania and Bulgaria see only the upside to E.U. membership, as the history of their respective countries — two of the poorest in Europe today — have been marked mostly by invasion, occupation and dictatorship.
E.U. membership is also expected to bolster democracy, which is still a work in progress in these countries, and lead the governments to adhere even more strictly to higher E.U. standards regarding anti-Semitism.
The new borders of the European Union will slice through the “Balkan and Black Sea Region” that Jewish communities have been stitching together, comprising Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Turkey, Moldova, southern Ukraine and Greece, already an E.U. member.
“We’ve been trying to break down walls between young people, to bring them together to realize there’s a whole Jewish community around them,” said Sadikario, 25, a Macedonian Jew — of a community of just 200 people — who works in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.
However, with an E.U. border encircling Romania and Bulgaria, she said, “We will feel more unstable, as connecting and mobilizing people will be more difficult.”
Attila Gulyas, 27, a Romanian Jewish youth leader, agrees.
“Having 30 or 40 young people at an event is not the same as having 200 or 300″ at a regional event, “which makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger,” Gulyas said.
Not that the situation is so easy right now. A recent youth event in Sofia drew together several dozen Jews from Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Serbia, kicking off with a Shabbat dinner of bourekas, cheese and cake. But the event also came with a price: $600 for visas to bring the four young Turkish Jews by overnight bus. The fee, a small fortune for such communities, was paid by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
With the new E.U. border looming, a large annual gathering in 2007 has been planned for Skopje, the Macedonian capital, as Sadikario and other organizers figured it might be the least complicated place to gather all participants from the region.
Farther north, the E.U.’s new eastern frontier will divide Romania from Moldova. The impoverished ex-Soviet republic was part of Romania until 1940, and even today some three-quarters of its population is of Romanian descent.
Recent months have seen the Romanian Jewish community strengthening its cultural ties to the more numerous but poorer Moldovan Jewish community. It’s unclear whether the European Union, acknowledging the historic links between Romania and Moldova, will allow for special visa concessions.
“It could be a small problem for the Moldovans,” said Aurel Vainer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania and a member of the Romanian Parliament.
But Vainer, 74, said E.U. membership also represents an opportunity.
“Once we’re in the E.U., perhaps we can advocate on behalf of the Moldovan Jewish community and for Moldova to join the European Union,” Vainer said from his richly wood-paneled office, lined with antique Judaica, in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.
Despite the difficulties of bridging some of the geographic issues, the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania is being seen by local Jews as a boost for their countries.
Many people, especially the elderly, fear a rise in prices for goods and utilities, but average salaries in both countries are climbing. The Romanian and Bulgarian economies are roaring, with annual growth of 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively; jobs are more plentiful; and both countries expect a multibillion-dollar infusion of E.U. aid and foreign investment.
Like their compatriots, Jews in Romania and Bulgaria expect their day-to-day lives to improve after joining the European Union.
Take corruption, which Brussels ranked among its top concerns for both countries. During the 1990s, mass privatization of state-owned properties, coupled with widespread poverty and the glacial pace of reform, fueled graft at every level of society.
With average monthly salaries hovering in the $200 to $300 range, virtually all professionals — police, doctors, professors, bureaucrats, city officials, judges — expect bribes for service.
According to Transparency International’s recently released 2006 Global Corruption Barometer, roughly one in four Romanians said he or she paid a bribe over the past year, while up to 70 percent of both Romanians and Bulgarians believe “corruption affects political life to a large extent.”
Among E.U. members, only Greece generated comparably poor numbers.
However, the lure of E.U. membership has empowered reformers to press the authorities to change, which they’ve begun to do.
It’s also expected that these governments will adhere even more strictly to higher E.U. standards regarding anti-Semitism.
“We have witnessed positive improvements made by both countries in combating anti-Semitism and providing for improved Holocaust education,” Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress, said in late September after Brussels formally announced the admission of Romania and Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, both Jews and non-Jews in Romania and Bulgaria say one thing that can’t be underestimated is the symbolism of receiving an E.U. passport, which will eliminate the need to stand in longer, non-E.U. lines at airports.
They’ll also have greater freedom to travel, work and study in Western Europe, a fact that reportedly has led hundreds of Israelis of Romanian and Bulgarian descent to pursue Romanian and Bulgarian passports.
Whether Western Europe actually treats the Balkan newcomers as equals is another question.
Even Jews here, who joined the European Jewish Congress and other Western Jewish organizations in the early 1990s, say it has taken years to feel equal in those forums.
European Jews viewed them as the poor cousins, much like Europe views their countrymen, said Emil Kalo, president of Shalom, the organization of Jews in Bulgaria.
“We’d all go to dinner,” Kalo recalled, “and they were very polite: ‘Please, let us pay.’ And my reaction was simply: ‘I will pay my bill; nothing less, nothing more.’ “
Gulyas, whose Hungarian-speaking family hails from the once-Hungarian, now-Romanian province of Transylvania, said he has experienced the same phenomenon when visiting his extended kin in Budapest.
“They see me as the poor Transylvanian relative,” Gulyas said. “And if it happens at the family level, for sure it happens at the communal level.”
These lessons have been absorbed by the broader Jewish community, Kalo said, and should be learned by Bulgarian and Romanian societies on the brink of becoming virtual E.U. welfare states, receiving billions of dollars in assistance.
“You will only earn respect,” Kalo said, “when you start paying your own bills.”