Young leader trying to bring pluralism to Bulgaria

sofia, bulgaria  |  Under a cloudless blue sky in a public square, 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 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 who 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.

Alexander Oscar, the president of Sofia’s Jewish community, speaks at a Holocaust ceremony March 10. photo/jta/ben harris

Among the changes Oscar is hoping to institute is one that would change that anomaly.

“The challenge today is how to bring Judaism more to the people of the community,” Oscar said in an interview. “What I mean is, 99 percent of the members of the community are non-Orthodox … 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 continued. “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. 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.

Oscar believes many Bulgarians are hungry for a 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 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.”

A physician who holds a Ph.D. 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.

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 an iPhone, iPad and laptop.

Despite his talk of pluralism, Oscar opposed the establishment of Chabad Lubavitch in Sofia as a religious entity distinct from the established community. He is against 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.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.