My name is Shany Azoulay and this summer I am travelling around Eastern Europe for the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund (JHF). On my trip I will visit projects for the JHF and will be meeting people who can tell me about the Jewish communities in their cities. I will travel to: Belgrade, Riga, Tartu, Budapest, Krakow, Prague, Kiev and Odessa.
View my video log below, or read my travel log.
While I was in Belgrade, I have spent most of my time with the organization Haver Serbia. Haver Serbia is a Jewish organization that educates people about Judaism, to Jews and non-Jews. Through education they try to reach all the different kind of Jewish communities in Serbia.
Haver Serbia organises a wide range of events for different ages. When I was there I joined the Midrasha, an event for students and elderly. They organise it in cooperation with the Jewish community of Belgrade and the synagogue of Belgrade. The events are (almost) every month and are two days in a row. The topic of the Midrasha is always related to Judaism and they try to approach the topics each time from a different perspective. The aim of the course is not only to teach and learn people about Judaism, but also to reach the Jewish society, in order to create a coherent society.
The first night I was in Belgrade, I was part of a Midrasha about Kashrut. Approximately thirty people were sitting in front of a rabbi in the Synagogue of Belgrade who explained about when products are Kosher. A lot of the people didn’t know much about it and were listening attentively. They asked questions and wanted to know where they can buy kosher products.
After the gathering, everyone moved to the attic of the synagogue, where they could chill and laugh with each other. I talked a lot with the people about the Jewish community in Belgrade. They told me that the community is small, but close. They all know eachother well (Everyone knows everyone). A lot of them were first chanichim (children) in the community where they would go to weekly gatherings for their own age groups and they learned about Judaism. While they grew older, they turned into madrichim (mentors) and counselors for the activities.
On my second night Haver Serbia organised a ‘challah-bake Midrasha’. It was a lot of fun to make them and see the whole process on how to bake them. They even made some special ones with apple and raisins in them. Of course, they tasted amazingly delicious. It couldn’t go wrong with so many Jews together.
The Jewish community of Belgrade
Nobody knows exactly how many Jews live in Belgrade. It is hard to tell according to Sonja Vilićić, the director of Haver Serbia Organization, because most of the people don’t want to tell other people that they are Jewish or they just don’t know how to practice it. “A lot of people here focus mostly on the cultural aspect of Judaism. People celebrate the holidays and go to the social events that the communities organise together,” says Sonja.
Belgrade has between 2000 and 2500 Jewish inhabitants, according to Sonja, which makes it the biggest community in Serbia. “It’s a small community and it’s a challenge, because of the amount of people. Especially because we don’t expect to grow fast in the future. I guess we will not grow, but we will still focus on our Jewish identity and cherish our community,” tells Sonja.
There are a couple of reasons for the fact that the community is so small. The first reason is the Second world war: more than 83 percent of the Jews in Belgrade died during the holocaust.
The second reason is that Serbia had a period of (independency) wars during the 90’s and a lot of Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States. They never returned after the wars.
The third reason is that a lot of Jews simply don’t want to say that they are Jewish because of the historical reasons.
Sonja: “The last time we had to describe ourselves to the state of Serbia, only 250 Jews actually signed that they were Jewish, out of 3,000 people. The community is even smaller in the eyes of the government because of that. They don’t even see us as a minority now, but as a ‘group of people’."