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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pesach in the Balkans as appeared in Hamodia magazine

Pesach in the Balkans

By Debbie Shapiro

Last erev Pesach, when Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, Chief Rabbi of Albania, and a rabbi in Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika), Greece, traveled throughout the Balkans to promote awareness of the upcoming holiday, he was both shocked at the rampant ignorance and awed at the incredible desire for growth that he encountered among the Jews who, at the sight of his black hat and beard, flocked to identify themselves as members of the tribe.
Rabbi Kaplan was appalled at their general lack of knowledge: "Why yes, of course we make a Seder each year," one man assured him. "We prepare a special sandwich from bread and lettuce, and eat it in memory G-d bringing the Jewish Nation out of Egypt."
"Of course we eat kosher," explained another Jew. "I always salt the meat, just the way my grandmother taught me. But why can't I purchase the meat at the local butcher shop?"
"Last year while visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania," Rabbi Kaplan relates, "I met a Jew from Los Angeles who had been living there for over thirty years. He had become involved with Jews for J, and was so estranged from Yiddishkeit that he had the gall to almost insist that he show me around his church! Of course I refused, and told him that he ought to be ashamed of himself. After that, I began teaching him the basic tenets of Judaism, starting with learning how to recite the Shema. Today, just one year later, this former member of a church is shomer Torah and mitzvos and eagerly preparing for our upcoming Seder!"
Located in Northern Greece, the port of Thessaloniki serves the entire Southeastern Europe, and is Greece's second major city. Although there has been a known Jewish presence in the city since the time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh, our holy Temple -- the Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis contained graves that were 2000 years old! –the Jewish community swelled tremendously in 1492 with the influx of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, so much so that they nicknamed the city La Madre de Israel, A Mother in Israel. The Sefardi immigrants thrived.  Up until the late 1800s, the majority of the city's residents were Jewish, and, out of respect for the Jewish workers, the city's port was officially closed on Shabbos. Today, some 1,200 Jews live in the city, and almost all consider themselves Orthodox. "When I arrived here three years ago," says Rabbi Kaplan, "I discovered a thriving Jewish community, with several minyanim each day and a small day school. The community's rabbi, Rav Eliyahu Shitrit, is doing a tremendous job with the kehillah, and I work together with him to strengthen the Jewish community."
The Republic of Albania is located just north of Greece, just 45 miles across the Strait of Otronto from Italy. Although there has been a continual Jewish presence from the seventh century, the Jewish community there has always been small. Prior to World War II, there were only one hundred and sixty Jews in the entire country, mostly in the city of Tirana. To its eternal credit, Albania not only protected its Jews, it also offered shelter to Jewish refugees from Serbia, Austria and Greece, so that by the end of the War, its Jewish population had swelled to over two thousand.
During the country's sixty years of Communist rule, however, religion was banned, and Albania was declared the world's first atheist state. With the fall of Communism in 1992, most of the country's 2000 Jews left for Israel. Although officially some one hundred and sixty Jews presently reside in Albania, this number only includes those Jews who are affiliated with the Jewish community, and the real numbers are probably much higher.
The majority of Jews residing in South-Eastern Europe, in Northern Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro – what's often referred to as the Balkan bloc – are Sefardi. Although Rabbi Kaplan follows minhag Chabad, his wife is the daughter of the well-known Sefardi  rav and kabbalist, Rav Moshe Ben Tov, ztz"l, and Rabbi Kaplan is a close student and has rabbinical ordination from Israel's Sefardi Chief Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar, shlita.
After close to a year of commuting between his home in Beer Sheba, Israel, and Thessaloniki, in Northern Greece, in March, 2009, Rabbi Kaplan, his wife, Rabbanit Ruth, and their five small children moved to a rented apartment in downtown Thessaloniki and immediately started preparing for the upcoming Pesach. Although he assumed that he'd receive requests for shmura matzos and other Pesach provisions from the Jews of Thessaloniki, he was surprised to receive requests from Jews throughout the Balkans, especially from the city of Pristina, Kosovo and Tirana, Albania, and immediately set out with a driver to distribute the supplies. That year, the Sedorim were hosted in their apartment. The turnout was startling: twenty four guests for the first Seder and twelve for the second.
By Pesach of 2010 community Sedorim were conducted in the cities of Pristina and Tirana, and, of course, in Thessaloniki, Greece.  In addition, Pesach supplies and instructions for conducting the Seder were distributed to outlying areas throughout the Balkans.
Rabbi Kaplan: "I discovered the Jews of Albania when I was visiting Tirana, Albania's capitol, and noticed a jewelry store with the Hebrew word "tzoref" (goldsmith) inscribed on its sign. Of course I entered the store and introduced myself. The owner, Shalom, was thrilled to make the acquaintance another Jew, and introduced me to the city's small Jewish community. The following Pesach I conducted the Sedorim there, there were some fifty Jews in attendance. We were all so emotional; this was the first time since World War II that a public Seder was being held in the entire region, and, considering that Albania prided itself in being an atheistic republic, it was probably the first real, kosher Seder held there in over fifty years!
"In Thessaloniki, we kashered a hotel kitchen, and my wife, Ruth, oversaw the preparation of the food for over one hundred and fifty guests. She taught the chefs to prepare the Moroccan delicacies that she had grown up with, but now they were all made without any matzah meal as we do not eat anything cooked with matzos. 
"As word of mouth spread about the Seder, we had a lot of last minute requests, and suddenly realized that we didn't have enough dishes. Erev Pesach I ended up running around town purchasing an additional forty eight sets of dishes, cutlery and glassware suitable to be used at a five-star hotel! Thank G-d the mashgiach was there to supervise the kitchen while I was out!
"This coming Pesach, we expect the numbers to swell to over four hundred. Although that includes a large number of tourists – as a result of the political situation in Turkey, Thessaloniki has become a popular Israeli tourist attraction -- the majority are locals. Many of the participants from last year's Sedorim have continued to strengthen their observance of Torah and mitzvos.
"Last year we ordered our matzo from Eretz Yisrael, both those used at the Sedorim as well as for distribution throughout the Balkans, but for some reason they never arrived. A week before Yom Tov, a yeshivah student made a special trip from Eretz Yisrael to bring them to us, so in addition to more than a few tense moments, we ended up paying a lot of money for overweight luggage! Our other supplies were imported from France."
Although Thessaloniki has a strong Jewish community, there are also many assimilated Jews who are completely oblivious to the beauty of their illustrious heritage.  Rabbi Kaplan devotes himself to discovering these hidden Jews, and reminisces about one of his first encounters in Thessaloniki: "Every time one local bully met me in the street, he'd make snide anti-Semitic remarks and publicly taunt me. But even after he and a group of his friends threatened to harm me, I continued to respond calmly, and even managed a smile. One time I even gave him my card and suggested that we meet sometime to 'have a beer.'
"The phone call came on erev Shavuos¸ when I was busy helping my wife bake challis and cook for the many guests that would join us for the two-day Yom Tov immediately followed by a Shabbos. 'Rabbi,' he began, 'I'm downstairs. I need to speak with you. Can I come up now?' Of course we warmly welcomed him despite the balagan. It didn't take long for him to tell me his deep, dark secret: his mother was Jewish. As a small child, the neighbors hid her from the Nazis, sparing her from the fate of her family and of 90% of the city's Jews.  She eventually married a local man and raised her children as non-Jews.

"This former bully now puts on Tefillin regularly, is slowly growing in his observance, and joins us almost every Friday night for the Shabbos meal. He's not exactly your typical baal teshuvah – he's a professional boxer and a real tough guy – but he's a Yid, with a real Yiddishe neshamah, and it's our privilege have had a part in bringing him close to Torah.”


In December, 2010, Albania's Prime Minister appointed Rabbi Kaplan as the country's first chief rabbi, an act that is especially meaningful in light of the fact that for the last fifty years, the country's official religion was atheism.

The ceremony crowning Rabbi Kaplan as Albania's official chief rabbi was held in Tirana's new Moshe Rabbeinu synagogue (named in memory of Rabbi Kaplan's father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Ben Tov) and was attended by the Roshon L'Tzion, Israel's Chief Sefardi Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar, shlita.

Rabbi Kaplan's appointment gave the official stamp of approval to his frequent visits to Albania, and other Balkan Jewish communities. "Before my position became official, I was coming here about once a week to work in outreach, and will continue to do so. The only difference is that now I have official backing." In addition to influencing individual families, he has instituted Jewish classes for over sixty children learning in public schools, and is planning to open a kosher restaurant in the near future.

So what began as outreach for Pesach has blossomed into a spiritual mission to reconnect a part of Klal Yisrael that might have otherwise been lost to us. May the day come soon that all of the lost throughout the world Jews return to their heritage, and may it be a harbinger of our final redemption, may it happen speedily, in our days, amen.

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