A Rabbinic Conference in Bulgaria

DSC_9038The Straus/Amiel and  Beren/Amiel emissarial training programs, prepare and place over 30 rabbis and educators annually in countries all over the world. To date, there are more than 160 spiritual leaders currently serving communities in every continent save Antarctica, teaching Jews, converting non-Jews, involving themselves in all areas of Jewish life and breathing a spirit of Torah, modernity, openness, Zionism, universalism and passion to Jewish communities throughout the world.

DSC_9158Its director, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum together with the Director of Training and Placement, Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein have built a professional, multi-dimensional and sophisticated organization which acts as a beacon of religious Zionist leadership  in the smallest hamlets where Jews exist as well as in major centers of thriving Jewish life.

None of this would have been achieved the same without the vision and implementation of Rabbi Riskin. I met Rabbi Riskin when I moved into Efrat over 15 years ago. I walked into his office and spoke to him about becoming a rabbi and whether he thought it was a good idea for me to pursue this course in Israel. He answered affirmatively, telling me part of his story as Rabbi in Lincoln Square in NYC, starting out in kiruv with an idea ultimately building a Shul, a community, a culture of excitement about Judaism and being modern Orthodox.

Rabbi Riskin convinced me to go to Canada (for one year) to gain experience as a rabbi before returning to Israel. One year became three, three became five…and then they offered me a ten year contract…and it was time to go home.

When I returned to Israel I busied myself with many different rabbinic type of positions until I met Rabbi Birnbaum ten months ago who told me about a position open in Krakow Poland and thought to myself it is time to return to community work despite the challenges that it will create (Poland, Krakow, traveling, family…). I have been enjoying the challenge ever since and will God willing continue.

Every professional needs to recharge during his/her career; every field has (or should have) compulsory continuing education classes and every organization needs introspection to reflect on its past and confirm the course for its future. For Rabbinic institutes conferences manifest this requirement. But, I usually hate them! They drone, they are exercises in self-cheerleading , uninterested in serious and frank discussions and have uncomfortable accommodations. Amiel was a surprising exception!

Amiel’s annual conference this year took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. Bulgaria? Growing up in North America I never learned about Eastern Europe; it was a blur. Poland, Balkans, Scandinavian countries, Russia…I confess I am a bit of boor in these areas of the world.

DSC_9231So to my great surprise and edification the conference began with a history lesson about Bulgaria all of it trying to answer one simple wonder: in 1941 when Hitler said to its ally (!) Bulgaria  hand over your 50,000 Jews for the gas chambers, the Bulgarian citizens went to the streets and said no way! They took action and saved all the Jews in Bulgaria! (Except for the Macedonaian and Greek Jews who were part of Bulgaria at the time but not really considered Native Bulgarians—they were sent on trains to Auschwitz.) When it came down to it the civil class of ‘regular citizens’ together with the Orthodox Church saved Jews based on morality and goodness! What a story and what a beginning of our rabbinic conference in this unique country! We were also able to meet representatives of the Bulgarian Jewish community who shared with us what it was like to grow up in this particular Jewish community.

DSC_9015The conference brought together a remarkable group of men and women who devote their lives in serving often remote European Jewish communities. Chief rabbis of countries, rabbis of cities, people involved in Jewish education and everything in between, were invited to come, listen and contribute. Amiel’s policy is that the rabbis and their wives are the speakers; they are in the field, they have what to share and important discussions emerge from their vantage points.

DSC_8950 The topics focused on the unique challenges of European Jewish communities and brought us in touch with the complex realities in various Jewish locales: the Anusim of Spain and Portugal, the Subbotnik Jews in southern Russia, The Russian Jews in Germany, Jews of Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Kiev, and the re-emergence of Jewish life in Poland. A very important topic dealt with the conversion process in our communities and our relationship with Israel and the chief Rabbinate. Shiruim on Torah were part and parcel of the three-day conference.

Each Rabbi and Rabbanit had several opportunities to share of their successes and failures,  triumphs and frustrations—and most important was the feedback, interaction and conversation which ensued as a result. I was pleased to know that other rabbis felt what I was experiencing in my part of the world and though each one of us has a unique story, we can also benefit from learning how others struggled and overcame obstacles.

DSC_9123One afternoon we davened mincha in the majestic main synagogue of Sofia and then had a tour of the Sofia Jewish museum where the guide taught us about the over 2000 year old Jewish community in Bulgaria! Remnants of second Temple relics, writings from ancient historians, edicts from early Bulgarian kings about the Jews, responsa of great Rabbinic authorities over the ages, pictures of different rabbis, community leaders and the opening of the Synagogue over 100 years ago—all these are exhibited in the museum.

DSC_9183 After the museum we went for an excursion through the streets of Sofia, though I confess I did not listen pay attention as I had a rare opportunity to spend some leisurely time with Rabbi Riskin, asking him whatever was on my mind and learning from his wisdom and experience. I truly marvel at what this man has accomplished in his life and what he plans for the next decades. I hope God continues to give him the strength of ten of us in his work schedule, unyielding engrossment in Torah and engagement with the ever-changing Jewish world.

I confess that I didn’t sleep much—the first evening ended at 10:30, the second at midnight!  So relaxing it was not, but I emerged with a greater grasp of European Jewish life, an appreciation of Amiel Rabbis, new friends and continued admiration for Rabbis Riskin, Birnbaum and Grunstein for their outstanding work in shaping Jewish communities all over the world in general and in Europe in particular.


About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He is also the Emissary of Shavei Israel in Krakow, Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms