Jewish Life in the Balkans and the European Refugee Crisis

For the last six years, I have had the pleasure of working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the leading international Jewish relief organization, in the Balkans. Since 1914, the JDC has provided aid to Jews in central and eastern Europe as well as the Middle East through a network of social and community assistance programs. JDC took a leading role in Operation Solomon, the Ethiopian airlift to Israel. Today, the JDC provides millions of dollars in disaster relief and development assistance in non-Jewish communities around the world and engages in humanitarian relief work with refugees in Hungary, Turkey, and Jordan.

In the Balkans, the JDC is working to rebuild Jewish life through a series of social, cultural, and educational initiatives for men and women in their twenties and thirties. They have helped create summer camps, theater groups, schools, and youth festivals for young Jews across the Balkans.

When I lived in the UK, I had several rich experiences teaching Judaism to young Balkan Jews in Sofia (Bulgaria) and at their annual Jewish learning festival in Romania. Since my return to the US, I have continued to teach these wonderful millennials over my videoconferencing network. Jewish life in the Balkans, especially among the millennials, is resurgent, growing, and vibrant.

I recently spoke to my JDC colleague, Polly Zaharieva, in Sofia who organizes many of these activities in the Balkans. I wanted to know how the Syrian refugee crisis in the Balkans had affected the Jewish communities. Not surprisingly, Polly told me that the Jewish communities in the Balkans are trying to help the refugees- “as we were all once refugees.” She reported also that the Bulgarian Jewish community has helped to arrange for ophthalmologists to visit the refugee camps, examine the refugees, and provide them with glasses.

Maia Ferdman, an American UCLA graduate who received the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s Fishel Fellowship that allows her to work for JDC in the Balkans, shared the following account of a visit that she and Polly made to an elderly Holocaust survivor in Athens. The following is from her recent blog (

During our visit to Athens back in September, Polly and I visited Lola, the grandmother of a friend. Lola invited us into her home, covered in family photos and warmth, and told us about her lifetime in Greece over snacks and wine. She has a vivacity and humor that left a deep impression on us both.

She is also a Holocaust survivor. While she did not go into her experience in detail, she did tell us a story about a man who gave her a ham and cheese sandwich when she was a refugee after the war. She still remembers this small act of kindness. Not knowing what to do, Lola handed the sandwich to her mother, who divided it up for the children.

She explained how this small gesture stuck with her, some seventy years later. She also lamented the present-day refugee crisis, identifying and sympathizing with the thousands of individuals and families making their way through her country.

When it was time to leave, she hugged us goodbye and gave us directions to the metro station. “When you see the refugees, you’ll be in the right place.”

We had left in a flurry, gushing about grandmothers and Greece, and worrying about making it to Shabbat services on time.

We arrived at Victoria Square, and a silence came over us even as the noise around us built. The small plaza, bathed in street lamps’ yellow light, was filled with small camping tents. Women sat on blankets, some holding infants and some preparing food in portable pots. Small children chased each other, teenage boys took selfies, and a young doctor stood in scrubs holding a clipboard, a growing crowd huddled around her. Victoria Square has become a central stop for refugees, mostly Afghans, passing through Greece on their way to Germany.

One metro stop later, the refugees disappeared. Markers of normal city life – honking taxis, camera-wielding tourists, persistent vendors – resurfaced, and Athens regained its everyday atmosphere of capital, historical treasure, and tourist hub.

Needless to say, reading about the crisis is one thing. To confront it, to walk unwittingly into its heart, was something entirely different. Wandering through Victoria Square, I felt as if I walked into a living news story, into the center of a moving, breathing version of the many photographs I had seen.

It was also a realization of how easy it is to sink into everyday life, even when directly confronted with a tear in normalcy. It only took one metro stop to go on with the evening, to move on with the trip. I have been living in the Balkans, where a stream of refugees makes headlines every day, for two months now, yet this was my first and only direct experience with them so far. I travel often, yet it is so easy to take my freedom of movement for granted; by virtue of the papers I carry, every border has embraced me with gaping open doors.

I am still searching for small ways to contribute to relief efforts, whether through small donations here and there, reading and spreading information, or researching local efforts to help refugees. To live here during this moment in history sometimes feels like a responsibility, and sometimes only augments a sense of powerlessness. But it also offers an opportunity. I, the descendant of an entire generation of refugees, cannot forget the power of a simple ham and cheese sandwich, remembered and appreciated decades later.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States, it might be worth reflecting that we were all once refugees.