Berkeley couple adopts a child — and shul — in E. Europe

When Sally Hindman and Dan Sawislak first set out for Bulgaria, it was to set the adoption process in motion so that later they could bring home a child.

They did that and now are the parents of Sylvia, an almost 3-year-old Roma child. But they also came home with a project — to help the Jewish community of Varna restore its old synagogue.

Bulgaria is the only country in Eastern Europe that protected its Jews in World War II. While some of them were interned in labor camps, none were sent to the death camps. Varna, which is on the Black Sea, is Bulgaria's third-largest city and was once home to some 5,000 Jews. But most of them immigrated to Israel during the 1940s. Only about 160 remain actively involved in the Jewish community.

For the Berkeley couple, the story begins in 2001, when they began the process to adopt a child from Eastern Europe. They initially were interested in Romania because Sawislak's family is from there and also because there is a great need for adoption. But for the time being, Romania is not allowing international adoptions.

So they moved on to Bulgaria. The couple knew that a high percentage of children in Eastern European orphanages are Roma, so they decided to adopt a Roma child. Also known as Gypsies, the Roma are among the lowest class in Europe.

"Both of us have been working with the homeless, and we're concerned about people being marginalized and scapegoated," said Hindman. "That's why we're really drawn to Roma culture, because they were in the camps with the Jews."

When they went to Bulgaria in 2002 they met Sylvia, the youngest of 13 children, for the first time. Hindman stayed in Bulgaria for a month, working on a tile project with Roma street children. She visited Sylvia every day.

She also sought out the Jewish community. There are two synagogues in Varna, both built in the 19th century, and both in ruins.

Finding the synagogues "became this pilgrimage," said Hindman. "It was almost a secret, but then I finally found this abandoned synagogue."

According to Boris Yakov, a member of Varna's Jewish community, between the majority of Bulgaria's Jews emigrating and the rise of communism, Jewish life has all but disappeared.

"The synagogue was nationalized and lost its original function," Yakov wrote in an e-mail. "It was then used as a sports hall and a storehouse."

The synagogue Hindman found was returned to the Jewish community in 1995. But with no money, nothing could be done to restore it.

"Many of the young Jews living in Varna haven't had a real service in a synagogue their whole life, and the old people have mere memories of it," Yakov wrote.

Hindman was able to make contact with some people in the Jewish community, who told her they would like to restore the synagogues, but due to the terrible economic circumstances, they had no way to get the money.

Together with the Jewish community, they decided to apply for a grant to rebuild one of the synagogues. But there was a problem. One had been locked since the 1970s, and no one had the key.

"We had to break in, it was so strange," said Hindman. A team from the Bulgarian Academy of Arts and Sciences was needed to do a site visit to evaluate the synagogue, but that would cost $150.

Hindman sent a plea for help to Rabbi Andrea Berlin at Oakland's Temple Sinai, where Hindman and her husband are members. Within seven hours, the rabbi responded she would donate the $150 from her discretionary fund. The evaluation was done and the proposal was written, and the restoration project was on its way.

Just this week, the group got official confirmation that they will receive $20,000 from the Jewish Heritage World Monuments Fund, with another $20,000 in matching funds from the United Nations Development Program.

Sam Gruber, director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in New York, was in charge of restoring the synagogue in Krakow, Poland, and he is involved in fund-raising efforts.

In Bulgaria, they've enlisted the help of a group called Beautiful Bulgaria Project, which hires low-income people to do preservation work. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also in on the effort, and is the organization collecting donations for it.

Hindeman and Sawislak plan to stay involved, and will return to Varna next year to help restore the synagogue and to adopt a second child.

"Sometimes we play different roles," Hindman concluded. "And sometimes you are the catalyst."

Donations can be sent to

the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Central-Eastern European Program, 847 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017. Donations should be earmarked for the Varna Synagogue Restoration Project. Gifts can also be made online at

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."