Under a cloudless blue sky, in a square wedged between the National Assembly and the Rectorate of the University of Sofia, Alexander Oscar, the young president of Sofia’s Jewish community, issued a blunt message to his countrymen.
The occasion was Bulgaria’s Holocaust remembrance ceremony on March 10, a day meant to celebrate the country’s heroic rescue of its 50,000 Jews during World War II, a feat unequalled in any Nazi-allied country and a rightful mark of pride here.
But Oscar was determined not to let his fellow Bulgarians revel too much in their self-congratulation. He reminded them of the deportation of 11,000 Jews —most of whom perished—from Thrace and Macedonia, territories then administered from Sofia. He recalled the 1941 law that forced Jews to wear a yellow star and prohibited them from occupying public positions. And he noted that of the Jews deported from Sofia, all of the men were dispatched to labor camps.
As one local put it, Bulgarian Jews were raped, but not killed.
“We do not want to be radically changing the whole perspective,” Oscar said later. “Slowly, slowly we are doing it.”
Gradual yet determined change may well be the perfect slogan for Oscar’s three-year tenure as community president. Just 32, he is among the youngest presidents of a major metropolitan European Jewish community, and he has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve outreach to the young and to enable Sofia to run more like Jewish collectives in the West.
But Oscar holds another distinction he is less eager to mention: He is one of the only Jewish community presidents outside the former Soviet Union who is technically not Jewish, according to religious law. Born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother but raised as a Jew, Oscar cannot be called to the Torah in his own hometown.
Among the changes Oscar is hoping to institute is one that would correct that anomaly.
“The challenge today is how to bring Judaism more to the people of the community,” Oscar told JTA in an interview in Bulgaria’s capital city. “What I mean is, 99 percent of the members of the community are non-Orthodox; they are Liberal. Unfortunately, there is only one way of belonging to the synagogue, which is the Orthodox way. And now the challenge is how we make the community more pluralistic and open.
“We have a bunch of people, let’s say 10-12 people, observing all the mitzvot. Let’s say they are Orthodox,” Oscar said. “The rest of the people, they are really searching for a meaningful Jewish way which is different from the traditional Orthodox way.”
Across Europe, tensions have flared periodically between established Jewish religious communities, which tend to be Orthodox, and the rank and file, who are overwhelmingly secular. In Germany, Reform Jews lobbied for years to win state funding that previously had been granted only to the Orthodox. In Barcelona, a legal challenge to remedy a similar situation is reportedly underway.
But in Eastern Europe, where there’s little tradition of non-Orthodox Judaism, the idea of a Reform religious approach—known in Europe as Liberal or Progressive—exists largely as a Western import. This is doubly true in Bulgaria, which virtually alone among European Jewish communities is Sephardic.
“Some Central and Western European countries have 200 years of Progressive Jewish history to hang your hat on,” said one Jewish professional working in Europe who requested anonymity to preserve his working relationships in the region. “There’s nothing like that in Bulgaria. So there is more of that kind of unusual I-may-not-be-observant-but-my-observance-is-traditional-when-I-do-it.”
Oscar believes many Bulgarians are hungry for just that sort of Western-style Reform Judaism, citing the recent visit of an American Reform rabbi who gave several well-attended lectures.
But in pushing for such changes, Oscar has set himself on a collision course with the small part of the community that is religiously observant—and possibly with a far larger group that, while not personally Orthodox, may want the community to adhere to its traditions.
“I cannot agree that we have to lower the standards just because most people are not observing the same level,” said a member of the Sofia synagogue board who asked not to be named. “My opinion is that we have to educate as many people as we can to teach them how to live as Jews.”
Oscar is among the generation of Eastern European Jews who benefited from the millions of dollars of Western philanthropy that flooded into the former Soviet bloc after the fall of communism, much of it coming from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas relief agency funded primarily by the Jewish federation system.
Those dollars have yielded a passionate cadre of young Jewish leaders, products of Jewish summer camps, leadership training seminars and sustained exposure to the Jewish organizational culture of the West.
But they have also introduced particular models of Jewish community—especially, models of religious community—to areas with no history or familiarity with them.
“I think at times unintentionally, and at times intentionally, we are—all of us across the spectrum—very much projecting our own models onto these social contexts,” said Berlin-based Rabbi Josh Spinner, the American-born executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “It might not be possible to restore the pre-Communist way of doing things, but one has to at least be sensitive to it. Instead, the assumption is that those people need to think like me. It’s all a set of discourses that we have imported.”
A neurologist currently pursuing his doctorate in neuro-ophthalmology, Oscar was not even a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Among his earliest impressions of Jewish life were the American money and volunteers that started pouring in during the 1990s.
“For me at that time, I was a kid of 11, 12 years of age, it was very astonishing why people who practically we had never seen are helping people that they had never seen,” Oscar said. “And it was really very important for me. It was the basic question that I was asking myself in the next couple of years until I really understood that this was the main mission of Jewish people, to help each other.”
Oscar’s enthusiasm led to his being tapped for a community leadership post in 2003 by Emil Kalo, then the community president. Oscar told him he’d join the board only if he could be the vice president in charge of youth affairs.
The young leader first earned his stripes by making good on a promise to open a bar where young Jews could gather. Elsewhere in Europe, such things have happened outside of community structures. But Oscar placed his hangout on the top floor of the Jewish community building overlooking Vazrazdane Square in central Sofia.
Now Sofia’s community president, Oscar has eschewed the salary and chauffeured car that are considered standard perks for European Jewish community heads. He speaks of communal transparency and youth empowerment, and he carries with him a trio of Apple computer products: iPhone, iPad and laptop.
These days, along with Martin Levi, a 23-year-old lawyer also not halachically Jewish, whom Oscar tapped for the community board, Oscar is hoping to exert a liberalizing influence on the community’s religious institutions.
How divisive this effort will be depends in large part upon whether Oscar’s constituents are as comfortable with his thinking as he believes they are, and upon how much they oppose change.
Despite his talk of pluralism, Oscar opposed the establishment of Chabad Lubavitch in Sofia as a religious entity distinct from the established community. Oscar says he is not against Chabad’s religious character, but he opposes the idea of having a Jewish community institution split apart from the rest of the community.
“I’m not trying to replace the Orthodox synagogue with a Reform synagogue,” Oscar said. “I just want to make more options for the people in the community. So, some of them will be Orthodox. Some of them will be Liberal. We have to create as many opportunities as possible.”