Yugoslavias aging Jews can still expect a difficult future

BELGRADE — One month after the dramatic ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, the walls of this shabby capital are still plastered with black and white posters boldly proclaiming a triumphant message:

"Gotov Je" — "He's Finished."

The mood is high, but no one is expecting miracles. Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, has initiated democratic changes aimed at ending his country's isolation and economic hardship, but the depth and complexity of the crisis indicate the recovery process is likely to be long and difficult.

"It is too soon to see results," said Judita Skenderovic, a member of the Jewish community in the northern city of Subotica. "We are still eating at soup kitchens, and there are shortages of heat, electricity, medicine and medical care.

"But this is the first time we have hope," she said. "There was a long tunnel, and now we can see some light."

Yugoslavia's 3,000 Jews, about half of whom live in Belgrade, see their future closely linked to the fate of Yugoslavia as a whole.

Highly integrated, mostly secular and often intermarried, they share the hardships and also now the aspirations of their neighbors.

The past decade of war, economic sanctions and dictatorial rule turned Yugoslavia into an economic basket case as well as a political pariah.

Today, with the Balkan winter looming, the economic crisis presents the most urgent immediate challenges for Jews and non-Jews alike.

"The economic situation is catastrophic, not just for Jews but for everyone," said Aca Singer, the 78-year-old president of the Federation of Yugoslav Jewish Communities. "Both the state and inhabitants are practically left without any financial or food reserves," he said.

Already, in the latter part of October, daily blackouts around the country cut power for four to six hours at a time, and prices of basic goods such as meat, oil and sugar skyrocketed.

These sharp changes disrupt private lives but also jeopardize social welfare programs implemented by the Jewish community.

Among the hardest hit have been senior citizens, who make up more than a fifth of Yugoslav Jews.

Many of them, including Holocaust survivors with no family, must exist on pensions that average about $30 a month.

And the middle-aged are affected, too. Many are jobless, and for those lucky enough to have work, the monthly salary may be less than $50.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee distributes medication and aid packages, and earlier this year opened soup kitchens in Belgrade and six other Jewish communities.

These serve a total of more than 700 hot lunches a day, five days a week — simple fare like bean soup or pasta with poppy seeds. But the economic crunch is now threatening the operation.

Last month, said Singer, suppliers in several towns served notice that they could no longer provide meals at a price low enough for local Jewish community budgets to cover without further assistance.

"We may need emergency financial aid on a long-term basis," Singer said. The immediate economic emergency, however, is far from the only challenge facing Yugoslav Jews at this time of volatile transition.

Community insiders describe a "lack of professionalism" among some local lay leaders, exacerbated by personal and political infighting.

The unexpected death from cancer last May of Jewish Federation Vice President Misha David represented a particularly hard blow.

David, who was in his late 50s, was expected to replace Singer as federation president and was recognized by many as one of the only members of the middle generation with the drive, dedication and leadership potential to take on the job.

"I don't know of anyone else who can replace Singer," said Belgrade Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel. "Besides being sad, David's death has left a vacuum."

This vacuum at the top is exacerbated by a vacuum at the bottom.

As part of a general Yugoslav brain drain, as many as 300 to 400 Jews left Yugoslavia in the past year or so, and many more left before that.

These emigres include many, if not most, of the student age and young adult generation of Jews.

"We are scattered all over the world," said Jelena, a 30-something Belgrade Jew who lives with her husband in Vienna. "Only one or two of our best friends from the community we grew up with still live in Belgrade. Some live in the United States.

Some in Israel, some in Canada — and there is even someone in New Zealand."

Among remaining Jews, meanwhile, internal communal bickering has alienated some community members.

"I grew up in this community and was once actively involved, but now I have as little as possible to do with Jewish community operations," said one man in his 50s. "My connection to Judaism now is through the synagogue, and I try to go to services every week."

Religious observance, however, is important to only a minority of Yugoslav Jews.

This man was part of a congregation that numbers only 30 — each week they gather in Belgrade's synagogue for Shabbat services, unable to fill the spacious hall.

Still, said Rabbi Asiel, it is to these people that he directs his efforts, and he has ambitious plans to raise private funds to build a mikvah and kosher kitchen and publish Jewish religious texts.

He dismisses criticism from some community members that he is "too religious."

"For me, Jewish values are Torah values," he said. "My main goal is very specific — to find people who will become religious in a traditional way. It's like saving a soul."