Bulgarian course offers pathway to official Judaism

sofia, bulgaria  |  As a child, Gabrielle Pavlova pored over pictures of her Jewish paternal grandmother, who died decades before Pavlova was born.

The family had no other ties to Judaism, and Pavlova was fascinated. She delved into her Jewish heritage, read books and wrote her master’s thesis on Polish Jewish literature. Her Jewish roots, she said, were “very close to my heart and soul.”

But technically, Pavlova is not Jewish — at least not in Europe, where even the Reform movement does not recognize patrilineal descent.

At 20, Pavlova asked Bulgaria’s chief rabbi if she could convert. He said there was no such program and she should just go home and study on her own.

Now, 12 years later, she has another option.

Rabbi Josh Ahrens demonstrates how to lay tefillin during a conversion course at the Sofia JCC in Bulgaria. photo/dianna cahn

Last month, Sofia’s new Orthodox rabbi, Joshua Ahrens of the Sofia Synagogue, launched a religious conversion course in the Bulgarian capital geared toward people like Pavlova.

“What I like about this community is that maybe only a handful of people are observant in an Orthodox way, but so many people are interested in Judaism,” Ahrens said. “They are excited. They want to know more.”

Decades of Communist rule helped wipe out traditional Jewish observance in Bulgaria, but in the 20 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria’s Sephardic Jews have re-emerged as a community. Today an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Jews live in Bulgaria — mostly in Sofia, where the Jewish community has 1,000 active members. Though most are thoroughly secular and many do not qualify as Jews according to halachah, or Jewish law, the community organization is officially Orthodox.

That has created an incongruity where people like Pavlova and even Sofia community president Alexander Oscar are not officially recognized as Jews and cannot partake in religious rituals, marry as Jews or read from the Torah.

Ari Greenspan is an American-born Israeli dentist who helped organize the Bulgarian conversion course. His inspiration came a few years ago during a Jewish youth conference. When it was time to read from the Torah, Greenspan turned to young community leader Martin Levy to read first.

But Levy said he couldn’t: He wasn’t halachically Jewish.

The new course is a first in that it offers Bulgaria’s “unofficial” Jewish community members a path to official conversion.

Pavlova, 32, is excited about the course, which she started last month. Two years ago, she moved from the northern town of Pleven to Sofia and met a Jewish man. She lights Shabbat candles, bakes challah and hosts Shabbat meals. She and her partner together read the traveler’s prayer, Tefillat Haderech, when they travel.

But Pavlova won’t marry or have children until she completes her conversion. “I wish to give this to my children,” she said. “For me, the test of time has shown how much I want this. I want it more and more and more.”

It remains an open question whether the graduates of Ahrens’ course will be recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. But many participants say they’re not converting to earn the right to immigrate to Israel but to be recognized as Jewish within their own community.

Oscar says there’s a sense of embarrassment and confusion among young community members when they discover they are not technically Jews.

“I passed difficult years as a child having to say my mother is not Jewish,” said Oscar, who was unable to have a synagogue wedding and so married his wife in a Jewish ceremony under a chuppah in a Sofia park with a friend officiating rather than a rabbi. “It falls on the leaders to make sure Jewish children not only feel Jewish but are proud of what they are.”

Ahrens was hired by the Sofia Synagogue’s board in late 2011. His conversion course is sponsored by the Jewish community and has drawn about 20 interested people.

Both Ahrens and Greenspan agree that conversions will have to comply with all Orthodox requirements, including circumcision and ritual immersion in a mikvah.

Some Bulgarians question the necessity of a formal ritual to solidify their identity.

“For me, the exam is not going to make me more Jewish than I am,” said Levy, 24, who grew up in Jewish community programs and is now on the board of directors. Still, Levy said he knows the material and might just take the final exam.

Neither Ahrens nor Greenspan has contacted the Israeli Rabbinate, which determines for Israel who is a Jew, because they don’t feel their course would be well received.

Rabbi Refael Dayan, who is in charge of external conversion issues for the Israeli Rabbinate, confirmed he had not been contacted regarding the program. “Who says they are even Jewish?” Dayan said. “They could be full-fledged gentiles. Someone has to check them.”

But Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of the Jerusalem-based ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate issues involving the Chief Rabbinate, argues that the Israeli Rabbinate has a responsibility to help bring Eastern European Jews back into the fold.

“Israel right now is not interested in taking on those kinds of responsibilities,” Farber said. “And I think that is a squandered historic opportunity that is only going to exist for one generation.