In the last ten years Haim Casas began working at a Jewish learning center named Casa de Sepharad in Cordoba’s Old City, entered into Leo Baeck College in the UK, and is on a path to become the first rabbi from Spain in over five hundred years. Haim was born a Christian.
Haim’s grandfather passed away when he was young. Although his family had requested a traditional burial in the community cemetery, they were denied. As he grew older, Haim began to grow more curious why grandfather was not allowed to be buried in accordance to local tradition. The answer Haim found changed his life. Haim’s family was the descendants of Jew’s forced to convert during the time of the Spanish Inquisition; his grandfather was considered impure by the community church.
The same year in Bulgaria, a group of teens gather in their community center. In the dimly lit entrance sits a security guard. His desk is beside a plaque on the wall that reads, “American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.” I follow the teens upstairs to an auditorium where we listen to Israeli folk songs, dance, and chow down on falafel and hummus. However, as we speak I get the sense that their faith is something they are still growing to understand. “We are not all technically Jewish,” explains an adolescent girl.
The Jewish population of Bulgaria largely disappeared because of both the Holocaust and the Communist regime that ruled during the Cold War. The remaining Jews in Bulgaria are either in their final years or in their early twenties. Many of these young adults are “born-again” Jews; some are not Jewish by any traditional sense. However, their passion for tolerance and love of other has prevailed a momentous push towards resuscitating Jewish life in Bulgaria.
Haim and the Bulgarian Jewish community have become connected by a sense of Jewish peoplehood. In many way this phenomenon is a product of persecution and exile; Jewish peoplehood almost always strengthens in the wake of grave injustice. The horrors of the shoah obligate Jews to be the keepers of other Jews; it is a miracle that less than a century after the systematic, mass slaughter of Jews, we are as free and prosperous as ever.
Although the Jewish generation who survived the shoah grows older, young Jews must be educated ofour history as a persecuted people. Yet, for the first time Jews, almost everywhere, are a people in charge of their own fate. It is imperative that we teach the next generation of Jews to have pride for their people’s reverence of text, strong common heritage and, most importantly, dreams and aspirations—not to be bound by what has been, but by what will be. Haim and my Bulgarian Jewish friends did not adopt their new lifestyles because they look at the past through a Jewish prism—they envision the future through one.
Haim and the Jews of Bulgaria are preserving an ancient Jewish tradition of keeping faith in the Jewish people. They are not religious in a traditional sense, but maybe practicing customs that are millennia old is no longer an effective gauge of a self-identifying Jew’s piety. Jews must dedicate themselves leaving this world a better place, being a light unto the nations and continuity defined by faith and compassion, not zeal.