First new shul opens in Balkans since 30s

MACEDONIA — "I'm so excited I can hardly talk," said Yehuda Alboher, as the Balkan's first new synagogue since the end of World War II opened last month — over half a century since Macedonia's Jewish community was deported to Nazi death camps.

Born in the Macedonian town of Bitola, Alboher immigrated with his family to Palestine as a small child in 1932.

He was formally presented with a Macedonian passport during the March 11 ceremonies marking both the Holocaust destruction of Macedonian Jewry and the revival of this fledgling Jewish community.

Fifty-seven years ago, over 7,000 Jews from Bitola, Skopje and elsewhere in Macedonia were loaded into boxcars and deported to Treblinka. Only a handful survived.

Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, other senior government officials, religious leaders and diplomats joined Jews for a series of commemorative events, where solemn mourning was combined with joyous celebration.

Macedonia's Jewish community today has just 200 members. The tight-knit group has been fighting to revive Jewish traditions, identity and life in this newly independent country.

"It is the fulfillment of a dream," said Viktor Mizrachi, the president of Macedonia's Jewish community.

"A person standing alone is like a solitary tree on a mountain," he said. "It can break easily in the wind. We in our community are like 200 trees standing together, with 30 strong oaks among us — our young people."

The new Bet Yaakov Synagogue, built on the top floor of the Jewish community center building in downtown Skopje, is a simple sanctuary decorated with striking stained-glass windows bearing Jewish symbols.

Its construction was funded primarily by members of congregation Beth Israel of Phoenix, who raised $25,000 for the project.

"Essentially we 'adopted' the Macedonian community," said Ilene Lashinsky, a Phoenix lawyer who learned of the community's dream to build a synagogue when she worked in Skopje three years ago.

Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel, the chief rabbi of Yugoslavia, traveled from Belgrade to conduct the first synagogue services held in Skopje for half a century.

Asiel, who will travel to Skopje once a month to conduct services, welcomed the congregation with "Buen Shabbat!" the traditional Sabbath greeting in Ladino, the historic language of Sephardic Jews which, like the people who spoke it, was all but wiped out in the Shoah.

The new sanctuary was filled to overflowing, with Jews from neighboring Balkan countries and from Israel, the United States and Canada.

U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Michael Einik and his Israeli-born wife, sat in the congregation.

Also there was an emotional Mois Rubisa, the only remaining Jew in the Macedonian town of Stip, who was taking part in his first Jewish communal activity.

"We didn't know he existed until a couple of years ago," said the general secretary of the Jewish community, Goran Sadikarijo.

Local television filmed the start of services as Asiel fixed a mezuzah on the door and Torah scrolls were carried into the sanctuary and placed in the new Ark.

The Jewish community of Bulgaria donated one scroll, and the Pasadena Jewish Center and Temple in Southern California donated the other.

"One has to believe in destiny," said Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Orange County, who brought the Torah to Skopje from California. "In this week's Torah portion, we read about the dedication of the sanctuary in the desert, and the Haftorah is about the building of the Solomonic Temple."

Prime Minister Georgievski joined other dignitaries at a public concert at which New York Cantor Joseph Malovany performed.

Later, Georgievski met with Macedonian Jewish leaders and representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish Committee, and renewed his pledge to finance construction of a Holocaust museum and education center on the site of Skopje's former Jewish quarter.

He also expressed satisfaction that a Jewish presence was again becoming visible in Macedonia.

Macedonian Jews have been particularly active in the wake of last year's NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Nine months ago, they formed an organization called Dobre Volje, or Good Will, closely coordinated with the JDC and dedicated to channeling nonsectarian humanitarian aid to Albanian, Serbian and Gypsy refugees who fled to Macedonia during and after the conflict.