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Blessed Hands

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Sorry for the lack of preamble, but here’s the deal: For the next two weeks or so I’ll be traipsing around Europe for JTA, my last jaunt before I sign off for the season (And no, I haven’t forgotten the R. Zalman video. Bear with me people.)

I’m in Bulgaria. It wasn’t easy getting here. Took three planes and nearly a full day, then another one to recover. But today I got the grand tour of Jewish Sofia. I went to the community center, then the other community center, the Jewish school (where they interviewed me under blazing studio lights), and the 102-year-old synagogue with a gorgeous interior where my camera lens conveniently gave out, necessitating an unexpected cash advance to a helpful photo retailer.

I struggled to stifle a grin watching a roomful of elderly Jews go through their morning constitutional, a scene that reminded me vaguely of Gung Ho, when George Wendt and Michael Keaton find themselves with no choice other than to join the morning calisthenics at a Japenese auto plant. By the end of the afternoon, I found myself in the company of three middle aged women — part of a group called Manos Bendichas, Ladino for "Blessed Hands" — who scurried around showing off the crocheted kippas they sell, sometimes by the hundreds, for American bar-mitzvahs.

Jewish Sofia has all the trappings of a vibrant community, a testament no doubt to the consistent work done here over the last two decades by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Ronald Lauder Foundation. But it’s the texture of community life that’s a little harder to capture.

In other countries in this part of the world, I’ve detected a subtle discontent particularly among the young, who came of age in a time of turbulent political change, were primed for success in large part by their exposure to Jewish organizational culture, and are now facing the prospect that their countries may fail to deliver on their promise. Though now firmly oriented Westward, corruption remains rife in the new Bulgaria. The recession has hit hard.

Yet within the confines of communal life lies this strange oasis where the non-profit vernacular of mission statements and community building and organizational transparency is spoken. 

A pretty young woman with impeccable English who works for the community told me of the contacts she is able to make with local dignitaries through her job. The Lauder school, to which local Jewish kids are accepted automatically and yet constitute less than a third of the student body, is said to be among the best in the city. And after seeing its banks of computer equipment and pro-quality television production studio, I’m inclined to believe it.

As it often does in less fortunate parts of the world, the Jewish community here offers a layer of insulation against the harsheness beyond. In Romania, I once saw a blue-blazered community leader doling out prescription meds to a handful of elderly Jewish men, a cross between Santa and the Godfather dispensing live-saving elixirs.

I saw nothing so desperate today. Though I had to ask, What of the masses of Bulgarian elderly who don’t enjoy funny group excercise classes, subsidized lunches, summer camps and — maybe most importantly — consistent social outlets?

"They’re home," I was told. "Dying."

Tomorrow morning at the parliament building, in another sign of the double-edged quality of Jewish life here, Bulgaria will commemorate the saving of the country’s Jews during the Holocaust. Though less talked about than the better-known (though much smaller) resuce of Danish Jewry, Bulgaria saved nearly 50,000 Jews during World War II. But the country also sacrificed more than 10,000 Jews then living in Thrace and Macedonia, territories administered from Sofia but whose Jews were not considerd Bulgarians worthy of protection.

The Sofia Jewish community’s 32-year-old president, Alec Oscar, will speak. And I’ll be there too — with my spanking new camera lens.

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