Belgrade, the Story of a Vanishing Community

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Inbal Freund Novick is director of development of the Social Activism unit at the Jewish Agency for Israel and co-founder of the Unmasked Comics project.

I met Olga Israel in 2006. As a legacy Heritage fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, I was researching the topic of young Jewish leadership. Olga was the chairperson of the European Union of Jewish Students, an umbrella organization for 34 national unions across Europe, and a Kol Dor member, a Jewish network of which I was also a member. We crossed paths at every young Jewish conference possible and, as expected, we both got to ROI.

Olga has a story that has always fascinated me. She grew up in Belgrade. During the Kosovo war, her father was responsible for broadcasting announcements that bombings had ceased and that people were able to emerge from their shelters. She was evacuated during the war to Israel, a journey that led her to connect to her Jewish roots. I was always curious about her journey, and I started asking her questions that led me to visit the community where she was raised. Once there, I was fortunate to meet with Rabbi Isak Asiel, the Head Rabbi of Serbia.

Rabbi Asiel was sent by his community to study in Israel for seven years. Today, he is running the synagogue and the community facilities. As the representative of the community, he is very involved in interfaith dialogue. He has a show on Serbian television and on the radio, and is now working on translating major Jewish works for the general Serbian public.

There are 3,000 Jews currently living in Serbia, 1,400 of whom live in Belgrade. The Jewish community is getting older and older as the younger generation is migrating out of the city, and Rabbi Asiel faces the challenge of preserving the old heritage and serving a shrinking community. This heritage is fascinating. The old synagogue where he lives survived during the Holocaust because it was turned into a brothel during the war. There haven't been many other Jewish structures that survived. Those that had survived were since destroyed by the communists. Rabbi Asiel showed us an example of this—a synagogue that was turned into a basketball court.

What does the future hold for the Serbian Jewish community? Is it empty museums and relics of the past or a committed Jewish community with a foothold in Israel?

Today, I think about this question quite often. I work at The Jewish Agency for Israel and meet many new immigrants who come to Israel. One of the projects I work with, "At Home Together" (Babayit Beyachad), aims to help new olim (new immigrants) find their way in a strange new country—Israel—by matching Israeli volunteers to every newcomer. The olim that come to Babayit Beyachad often don’t speak the language and get lost trying to figure out the Israeli bureaucracy. If they come from non-English speaking countries, they need even more help to communicate their needs. We find volunteers who speak their language and understand the culture they came from to help them adjust, find the right schools for their children and a job.  

If they come from a small Jewish community, it's even harder to find the match and to help, but we do it and help them go through this period. It's important to understand their background to help them build their home here. This ROI Micro Grant helped me get a look into the culture from which they came, to learn about the challenges that they face and the choices they make by staying in Serbia or making Aliyah to Israel.