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The Jewish Traveler: Belgrade

By | Jewish Travel, Serbia | No Comments

Tourists to Serbia’s White City will encounter vibrant nightlife, a reemergent cultural scene and the unmistakable sense of walking through modern history.

Hadassah Magazine – April/May, 2010

Scattered throughout downtown Belgrade are the eerie, ghost-like shells of several former government buildings. These casualties of a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo are grim reminders of the conflict that has engulfed the Balkans since the breakup of Yugoslavia into seven different countries.

Belgrade bombed building

Remnants of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in downtown Belgrade

But tensions in the region have cooled considerably during the past 10 years, and Serbia is no longer viewed as a political pariah. There is even talk of joining the European Union. And Belgrade, its capital and largest city with about 1.5 million residents, is reemerging as a tourist destination, known for its vibrant nightlife and café culture.

The center of it all is Knez Mihailova Street, a pedestrian promenade that evokes comparisons to Barcelona’s La Rambla. Belgrade’s version is packed with outdoor cafés, street performers, souvenir stands and boutiques, and is adorned with a number of century-old neo-Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings.

Knez Mihailova leads into Belgrade’s most prominent landmark, the Kalemegdan Citadel, an often-rebuilt fortress dating to Roman times that overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers.

Belgrade Knez Mihailova

Serbian flags for sale on busy Knez Mihailova Street

Belgrade’s small but active Jewish community boasts both Sefardic and Ashkenazic influences. And beyond the city, in the northern part of Serbia, tourists can visit two of Eastern Europe’s most architecturally splendid synagogues.

History
From the time they first arrived in the 10th century until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire some 900 years later, Jews fared better in Belgrade — which means White City in English — than in many other East European capitals.

The city became a refuge for Ladino-speaking Sefardic Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. They settled in the Dorcol region, close to the Danube. Ashkenazic Jews arrived from Austria-Hungary and Central Europe and lived further south, near the Sava River.

Jews were involved in trade between the Ottoman Empire’s northern and southern provinces, becoming especially important in the salt trade. In the mid-17th century, Belgrade’s yeshiva became widely known and the community flourished.

In the years following independence from the Turks in 1830, Jewish fortunes in Belgrade waxed and waned under different rulers, some of whom implemented laws favoring non-Jewish merchants and barring Jews from certain professions. In the 20th century, Jews fought alongside Serbs in the 1912 to 1913 Balkan Wars and in World War I.

Belgrade Kalemegdan Citadel

Entrance to Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Citadel

When the Germans occupied Belgrade in April 1941, about 12,000 Jews lived in the city – most of them Sefardim. Only 13 months later, Belgrade suffered the infamy of being the first city in Europe declared Judenfrei. At least 2,000 Jews were killed by firing squads at the Topovske Supe transit camp in central Belgrade; most of the rest were gassed at Sajmiste, a camp near the Sava River that had formerly been a fairground. Only about 2,000 of the city’s Jews survived the Holocaust.

After the war, Jews experienced less anti-Semitism in Yugoslavia than in many other Communist states. Still, many left the country for Israel or the United States.

Community
There are now about 3,000 Jews remaining in Serbia, two-thirds of whom live in Belgrade and its suburbs. Social service programs, funded largely by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, are administered through an umbrella organization called SAVEZ, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia (www.savezscg.org).

SAVEZ and the Jewish Community of Belgrade (Kralja Petra 71a; www.jobeograd.org; 011-381-11-2624-289) are housed in a building that was designed in 1928 for the Sephardic community. It sits on a hilly street in the old section of Belgrade, two blocks northeast of Knez Mihailova. The building is also home to the Jewish Historical Museum and a children’s theater.

Belgrade synagogue

  The only functioning synagogue in Belgrade

About a 10-minute walk from the community center is Belgrade’s only functioning synagogue, at Marsala Birjuzova 19. Known as the Kosmajska Temple because the street was called Kosmajska before World War II, the synagogue was opened in 1926 by Ashkenazim, although today most of its congregants are Sefardim. Rather than destroy it, the Nazis used it as a brothel.

The synagogue is under the supervision of Serbia’s only rabbi, Yitzhak Asiel. It is set in a large, gated courtyard in a gray, neo-Classical-style building topped with a round window bearing the Star of David. Housed in the same complex are a youth center, social hall, Jewish kindergarten, a small medical clinic and a kosher kitchen. Meals can be prepared for visitors; contact Vesna Kovacevic (olga.gabaj@gmail.com; 011-381-11-3036-156).

Belgrade’s Jewish community is perhaps best known to outsiders for its Baruh Brothers Choir. Founded in 1879 as the Serbian-Jewish Singing Society, the coed choir regularly performs in Serbian music festivals, has appeared on television and radio, recorded albums of traditional Jewish music and even performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Serbia is lagging behind other East European countries in making restitution for Jewish property nationalized by the Communists. To get permission to leave the country in 1948, about 3,000 Jews were forced to give up their land. Jewish leaders have launched a letter-writing campaign pressing government officials to pass a law appropriating compensation. Community President Aleksandar Necak calls it his organization’s “absolute, number-one priority.”

Sights
A good starting point is the Jewish Historical Museum (www.jimbeograd.org; 381-11-2622-634), located on the first floor of the community center. Established in 1948, the museum chronicles the history of Jews throughout former Yugoslavia and features an impressive collection of Judaica, including a 17th century Megilat Esther from Portugal.

For genealogists, the museum also has a database of birth, marriage and death records of Belgrade’s Jews from the middle of the 19th century until 1941.

Belgrade holocaust memorial

The Burning Menora holocaust memorial

From the community center, a short walk downhill toward the Danube River leads right into what once was the Jewish quarter in Dorcol. Its nucleus, Jevresjka (Jewish) Street, still exists as does the building that once housed the Jewish societies Oneg Shabat and Gemilut Hasadim. The façade of the yellow-and-pink building (16 Jevresjka), now the Cinema Rex theater, is inscribed with Psalm 71 in both Hebrew and Serbian above two large Stars of David.

Also in Dorcol, overlooking the Danube, is the powerful Holocaust memorial Burning Menora, dedicated in 1990. It was designed by sculptor Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Yugoslavia. Glid also created monuments for Yad Vashem and the Dachau concentration camp.

Across the Sava River from the bus and train stations in a part of town now called New Belgrade are the remnants of the Sajmiste Concentration Camp, where about 8,000 Jews – mostly women and children — were murdered in mobile gas chambers. The camp’s guard tower and a portion of the barracks are still standing. In the mid 1990s, a large memorial was erected on the Sava riverbank in memory of Sajmiste’s 40,000 victims, which also included Serbs and Roma.

Zemun Serbia

The suburb of Zemun, across the Danube from Belgrade

The Jewish cemetery (1 Mije Kovacevica), about a 10-minute drive east of the town center, contains another Holocaust memorial. The monument, a menora in front of two large stone tablets, was erected in 1952 by the Yugoslavian government with support from the Jewish community. The cemetery is also home to an impressive monument dedicated to Jewish soldiers killed in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars and World War I.

Zemun, a Belgrade suburb across the Danube, was the southern outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at a time when the Turks ruled Belgrade. Today, it is a charming town of about 150,000 residents with a number of historic buildings, cobblestone streets and spectacular views of Belgrade across the river.

In 1850, an Ashkenazic synagogue (Rabin Alcalaj Street 5) was built in Zemun that still stands, although it is now owned by the city and currently houses a restaurant serving traditional Serbian dishes. The Jewish Community of Zemun (Dubrovacka 21; http://joz.rs/index2_en.html), located around the corner from the synagogue, is trying to raise funds to buy it back.

Tito's tomb

Tito’s tomb

Other Sights
For those fascinated by Josip Broz Tito — the man who held multiethnic Yugoslavia together for 35 years — the place to go is the Yugoslav History Museum (Boticeva 6). The museum, which consists of three buildings in a park-like setting, has a collection of more than 200,000 items relating to the country’s history in the 20th century, with a main emphasis on the life and work of Tito. Between his two marriages, Tito had a relationship in the 1940s with Hertha Haas, a woman of Jewish descent who bore him a son, Aleksandar Miso Broz, today a Croatian diplomat.

Tito’s tomb is on display in the House of Flowers, along with collections of his office furniture, uniforms and ceremonial batons. The museum is a 15-minute drive southeast of the town center and is easily accessible by trolley.

Side Trips
The gorgeous old synagogues in Subotica and Novi Sad in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina are must-sees for Jewish travelers who can get away from Belgrade for a full day. Vojvodina, which was part of Hungary before World War I, had active Jewish communities in several dozen towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

From Belgrade, it is a two-hour drive to Subotica, only six miles from the Hungarian border. Near the town center is its magnificent synagogue, built in 1902 and considered one of the finest surviving examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe.

Subotica synagogue

Subotica’s magnificent synagogue

The main entrance is on Jakab and Komor Street, named after the Hungarian-Jewish architects who designed both the synagogue and Subotica’s Town Hall. The house of worship has five green-and-yellow-tiled domes, each topped with a Star of David, and the inside is resplendent with wall murals, inspired by folk art, and numerous stained-glass windows.

In its heyday, the synagogue held 1,500 worshippers. But it fell into disrepair after World War II and was last used for religious services in the late 1940s. Renovations began in 1980; however, much work remains. The Subotica Jewish Community (jewcom@nadlanu.com) is raising funds for the restoration along with the municipal government, which currently owns the building.

Next door, at Ulica Dimitrija Tucovica 13, are the headquarters for the Jewish community and a small working synagogue for the city’s 250 Jews. There is no rabbi but weekly Shabbat services are led by a hazzan.

Novi Sad synagogue

 Stained-glass window in the Novi Sad synagogue

Novi Sad, about halfway between Subotica and Belgrade, is the capital of Vojvodina and Serbia’s second-largest city. Its synagogue, at Jevresjska 9, was designed by Lipot Baumhorn, another Hungarian-Jewish architect. It opened in 1909 a few blocks from Novi Sad’s main town square, the fifth synagogue to be built on that spot.

The synagogue was constructed in a neo-Classical style with dark yellow bricks. The façade, flanked by two towers, is inscribed in large Hebrew letters: “This is the house of worship for all nations.” Inside, the sanctuary has several stunning stained-glass windows. Most of the Jews in Novi Sad who survived the Holocaust immigrated to Israel; in 1991, the synagogue was turned over to the city. It is now used as a concert hall.

Personalities
Moshe Pijade, a confidant of Tito’s who rose to the highest echelon of the Yugoslavian government in the 1950s, was born in Belgrade in 1890 to a prominent Sefardic family. In 1925, he was imprisoned for 14 years due to his pro-Communist sympathies. He later fought with the partisans against the Nazis and, in 1954, was elected president of the Yugoslavian Parliament.

Danilo Kis, whose father was a Hungarian Jew, is considered one of the most important Yugoslavian writers of the 20th century. Born in Subotica in 1935, Kis wrote novels, short stories and poetry in Serbo-Croatian. His most famous works, including The Encyclopedia of the Dead (Northwestern University Press) and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Dalkey Archive Press), have been translated into English.

Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest, but his family originally came from Zemun, and his grandparents are buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

 

Reading
Jennie Lebel, a Serbian-Israeli historian, provides a comprehensive overview of Jewish life in Belgrade in Until ‘The Final Solution’: The Jews in Belgrade 1521-1942 (Avotaynu). The book, which took Lebel 20 years to research, has been published in English, Serbian and Hebrew.

As a Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad covered NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999. She returned a year later to write a book that explores the lives of 13 Serbs, including a politician, rock star, black marketeer and farmer. With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia (Basic Books) offers interesting insight into the Serbian perspective at a time when the country had few friends.

Perhaps because hostilities have since ebbed and tourists are rediscovering the city, Belgrade in Your Pocket was added to the In Your Pocket lineup of city guides in 2008. The guide provides maps and information on restaurants, events and nightlife. It can be downloaded for free at www.inyourpocket.com/serbia/belgrade and is also available at many Belgrade hotels.

Recommendations
Tour guide Branka Adamovic (brankaguide@yahoo.com; 381-63-712-6692) is knowledgeable about Jewish sights and speaks excellent English. She will drive visitors to the synagogues in Novi Sad and Subotica.

Other than the kitchen in the synagogue, there are no kosher restaurants in Belgrade. But Peking (Vuka Karadzica 2; 381-11-2181-931), Belgrade’s first Chinese restaurant, is a good choice for vegetarian dishes. Peking is on a side street just a block from Knez Mihailova, not far from the Jewish Community building.

Belgrade Danube fishing

  Fishing on the Danube

The Majestic Hotel (Oblicevvenac 28; www.majestic.rs; 381-11-3285-777) has a great location right off Knez Mihailova, less than a five-minute walk from the synagogue.

Visitors will likely want to spend an hour or two each day experiencing Belgrade’s café culture around Knez Mihailova. There, in the seemingly endless row of bars and restaurants, tourists join the locals drinking espresso or Jelen Pivo, a popular domestic beer. In the evening, Belgraders dress up and promenade en masse – a Balkan pastime called the korso.

Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and few historic buildings survive. But the past decade has brought relative calm and, with it, a growing number of tourists who find a culturally dynamic and revitalized city that is leaving the past behind.

 © 2010 Dan Fellner

lvov rabbi bald

The Jewish Traveler: Lvov

By | Jewish Travel, Ukraine | No Comments

The soul of erstwhile Jewish Galicia can yet be conjured up with a trip to one of the region’s principal—and still resplendent—capitals of culture.

Hadassah magazine – April, 2008

It’s early evening and a small minyan is chanting Minha inside Bais Aron V’Yisroel, Lvov’s only active synagogue.  Led by Chief Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald, the men say the same prayers Jews have been reciting for centuries in this western Ukrainian city that was once the hub of Jewish culture in Galicia.

Although the number of practicing Jews is now a tiny fraction of what it was before the Holocaust, Bald and other Jewish leaders in Lvov are determined to reinvigorate the community and preserve its rich Jewish past.

Lvov's Rynok Square

   Rynok Square

For visitors, a number of sights evoke memories of the area’s vibrant—and tragic—Jewish heritage.

This city of 800,000, known as Lviv in Ukrainian, suffered relatively little damage in World War II.  The result is an Old Town, anchored by cobblestoned Rynok Square, featuring more than 40 buildings in a variety of architectural styles—Renaissance, Baroque, classic and Art Nouveau.

With ornate fountains, red-roofed buildings and green-domed churches, Lvov bears some resemblance to Florence.  Indeed, UNESCO, which has made Old Town a World Heritage Site, described Lvov as “an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of Eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany.”

History
Jews settled in Lvov soon after it was founded in the mid-13th century by Prince Danylo Halytsky of Galicia. The city took its name from the prince’s son, Lev. It is believed the principality’s early Jews arrived from Byzantium and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and neighboring lands.

Lvov Jewish ghetto memorial

  Jewish ghetto memorial

One hundred years later, Lvov was renamed Lwow when it was taken over by Casimir the Great of Poland, who gave Jews equal rights. Jews from Germany fleeing the plague and persecution began arriving, soon becoming prominent in trade and handicrafts.

By the end of the 14th century, Lvov, a walled city, had two Jewish settlements, one inside the walls, one outside. The two areas maintained separate synagogues and mikves but shared a cemetery. By 1550, about 1,000 Jews lived in Lvov.

In the early 17th century, a violent conflict arose between the Jews and Jesuits over the Golden Rose Synagogue, which had been constructed in 1582 inside the city walls by the Nachmanovich family. The Jesuits claimed for themselves the land on which the synagogue was built; however, the Jews were able to refute the charge, and the synagogue remained standing until the Holocaust.

Galicia became part of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1772, when Lvov again changed names, this time to Lemberg. Jewish rights were curtailed and, by 1800, only wealthy and educated Jews who adopted the German way of life were allowed to live outside the city’s Jewish quarter (by this time, the distinction between the communities inside and outside the walls had ceased to exist, and the main quarter was outside the walls). Most Jews earned a living as shopkeepers or craftsmen.

At the end of the 18th century, Lvov became a center of the Hasidic movement and, in 1844, a Reform temple opened. By 1910, the Jewish population was 57,000.

At the end of World War I, Jews were caught in the middle as Poles and Ukrainians fought for control of eastern Galicia. Pogroms broke out in 1918, leaving 70 Jews dead. Lvov eventually returned to Polish control between world wars. During this time, there were Jewish schools, newspapers and about 50 functioning synagogues. The Jewish population reached a high of 110,000 in 1939, one-third of Lvov’s total population.

When World War II began, Lvov came under Soviet control and the Jewish population swelled to more than 200,000, as refugees poured in from German-occupied Poland. The Germans captured the city in June 1941 and more than 6,000 Jews were killed almost immediately in pogroms carried out by the local population, fueled by rumors that Jews had participated in the execution of Ukrainian political prisoners.

In November 1941, the Germans set up a Jewish ghetto, which eventually had more than 100,000 occupants. Soon after, the Germans began transporting Jews from the ghetto to the Belzec death camp, 60 miles to the north in Poland. Thousands were also sent to the Janowska labor camp in the northern outskirts of Lvov where most were shot by firing squads. The Germans completely liquidated the ghetto in June 1943. By the time the Soviets recaptured Lvov in July 1944, only a few hundred Jews remained.

After the war, Jews slowly returned to Lvov from other parts of the Soviet Union, but religious expression was not allowed under Communism and anti-Semitism persisted. The postwar Jewish population reached a high of 30,000 in 1978, but has since dwindled due to emigration, primarily to Israel, Germany and America.

Community
About 5,000 Jews now live in Lvov, many elderly and impoverished. The Jewish community center, operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, tries to assist with a variety of social services and educational programs. The center is housed in the four-story Hesed Arieh (Lvov Jewish House; 30 Kotlarevski Street; 011-380-322-389-860; which opened in 2004. Also on the premises is a one-room museum with photographs and Judaica, including a mid-19th-century Torah scroll. Ada Dianova, formerly a popular Ukrainian stage actress, is the facility’s director.

Lvov Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald

  Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald

Bald has led Bais Aron V’Yisroel Synagogue since 1993, when he was sent to Ukraine by the Karlin-Stolin rebbe. His wife, Sara, helped establish the Acheinu Lauder school, which now has an enrollment of about 60 children. The synagogue offers restaurant services by order for groups, families or individuals.   It also organizes bus or car transportation, translators, guides, archive investigations and kosher food.

Community activist Meylakh Sheykhet, who heads the local bureau of the Union of Councils for Jewsof the Former Soviet Union, leads an Orthodox prayer group that meets in a building adjacent to the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue (54 Starojevrejskaja Street).  There is also a small kosher canteen in the building.  In addition to feeding the poor, the kitchen can provide kosher meals to visitors.

Meylakh Sheykhet at the ruins of Golden Rose Synagogue

Meylakh Sheykhet at the ruins of Golden Rose Synagogue

While Jewish leaders say that relations with most of the community at large are positive, there remains an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Lvov.  Jewish monuments and buildings are regularly vandalized and anti-Semitic slogans appear on fences and walls throughout the city.

Sights
Bais Aron V’Yisroel, a modest yellow building not far from the train station (4 Brothers Miknovski Street; 380-322-383-804), was built in 1924. Architect Aba Kornbluth designed it in the tradition of Renaissance synagogues of the 17th century. The Nazis used the building as a stable and the Communists later converted it into a warehouse. It was returned to the Jewish community in 1989.

Inside the synagogue, there are a number of hand-painted frescoes depicting animals, birds, a Torah and other Jewish symbols. The frescoes suffered significant damage due to many years of neglect during Soviet times but were recently brought back to splendor as part of a major interior restoration project under the supervision of architect Aron Ostreicher, who is known for reconstructing synagogues around the world. Funding was provided by American George Rohr and other philanthropists. Bais Aron V’Yisroel was rededicated in late 2007.

Lvov's only active synagogue

 Bais Aron V’Yisroel, Lvov’s only active synagogue

The Golden Rose Synagogue, which for centuries was the center of Jewish culture in Lvov, was burned down by the Nazis in 1942. Part of the structure’s northern wall has survived and it bears a plaque written in English, Hebrew and Ukrainian. Sheykhet is raising money to clean up debris at the site and conduct an archaeological excavation in hopes of recovering Jewish artifacts dating back more than 400 years.

Little remains of the old Jewish quarter of Lvov. A pink building at 3 Ugolna Street is the site of a mid-19th-century synagogue, yeshiva and mikve. It survived the Holocaust and was the city’s only functioning synagogue between 1945 and 1962, when it was closed by the Soviets.

Two other prominent synagogues that did not survive the Holocaust are recalled today with markers.

In the Old Market Square, near where the city was founded in the 13th century, a plaque marks the location of what was the largest Reform synagogue in Galicia. A few blocks away, near an outdoor market at the corner of Sanska and Vesela Streets, is the site of the former Hasidic Grand Synagogue, originally built in the 17th century. Both structures were destroyed in 1941.

One of the more exotic looking buildings in the city, the former Jewish Hospital (8 Rappaport Street), was built in 1904. It features a Moorish-style multicolored dome decorated with Stars of David. The building still functions as a gynecological hospital.

A memorial to the victims of the Lvov ghetto stands at Chornovola Street, near the railroad bridge. Built in 1992 with government funding, at one end of the monument there is a large statue of a Jew staring up at the heavens with one hand open in hope, the other clenched in protest. A menora at the front of the memorial is inscribed in Ukrainian with the words “remember and keep in your heart.”

The Museum of the History of Religions (1 Muzeina Street) displays about 50 items of Judaica, including an early-20th-century matza-making device. Thousands of other artifacts confiscated from the Jewish community during the Communist era, many never seen by the public, remain stored in Lvov museums. Jewish leaders are petitioning the government for their return.

About 15 minutes by car from Old Town is the site of the Janowska labor camp. A large memorial stone inscribed with “200,000” recalls the number of people who were murdered there, most of them Jews.

Other Sights
For a stunning view of Old Town and the green-domed churches below, climb the wooden staircase in the clock tower in the 19th-century Town Hall, in Rynok Square.

The ornate Ivan Franko Opera and Ballet Theater, built at the turn of the 20th century, is located at the north end of the city’s main street, Prospect Svobody (Freedom Avenue). There are several performances a week.

Lvov Town Hall Clock Tower

Town Hall Clock Tower

Side Trip
About 20 miles north of Lvov is Zhovkva, a former artists’ colony. Jews settled there at the end of the 16th century and, in 1700, built the Grand Synagogue, one of the largest in Galicia. Its interior was mostly destroyed in the Holocaust, but its pink Renaissance-style exterior and some inner frescoes of Torah passages as well as the Ark have survived. The building was partially restored after the war and converted into a furniture store. It now sits empty.

Drive 85 miles south of Lvov to reach Ivano-Frankivsk, a metropolis of about 200,000 residents named after the famous Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko. The town is the major gateway into the Carpathian Mountains, where hiking and skiing are popular activities. The mountain area also offers the opportunity to see rural Ukrainian villages that time seems to have forgotten.

Personalities
Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose short stories were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lived in Lvov for several months in 1906 and was involved with the Yiddish theater there. The site of his residence, an apartment building at 1 Kotljarska Street, bears a large plaque honoring its former tenant.

Lvov Sholem Aleichem former home

Plaque at the former home of Sholem Aleichem

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and social activist, was born in Vienna in 1878 but spent much of his childhood in Lvov with his grandfather Solomon Buber, a renowned scholar in his own right. Martin Buber wrote about Zionism, Hasidism and is perhaps best known for his essay on existence, “I and Thou.”

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was living in Lvov when the Nazis invaded in 1941. He and his wife were imprisoned in Janowska , from which Wiesenthal escaped in 1943. He fought with the partisans before being recaptured in 1944. Two years after being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, he helped establish the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria. Wiesenthal, author of The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Schocken), later moved to the United States and dedicated his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

Books, Films
Eliah Yones provides an in-depth account of the Holocaust in Lvov in Smoke in the Sand: Jews of Lvov in the War Years, 1939-1944 (Gefen). After escaping the Lvov ghetto to the nearby forests, Yones joined the partisans in fighting the Germans. His book details the role of the Judenrat (Jewish council), which provided work for as many as 5,000 people in the ghetto at one time.

Robert Marshall’s In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival From the Holocaust (Scribner) chronicles the plight of 20 Jews who survived by hiding for more than a year in the city’s sewer system.

The Jews of Poland—Five Cities: Bialystok, Lvov, Krakow, Vilna and Warsaw (Ergo) is a documentary account of the vibrancy of Jewish life in the region before the Holocaust. It was filmed in 1938-1939 and is available in both Yiddish and English.

More recently, portions of Schindler’s List were shot in Lvov’s Old Town, as production costs there were lower than in Krakow, where the story is set.

Recommendations
Tour guide Alexander Denisenko, owner of Travel Ukraine Agency (380-506-710-725), has studied at Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel and is an expert on the Holocaust and Jewish sights in the region. He can also help with genealogy research at the local branch of the Ukrainian Central Historical Archive (3 Soborna Street), the largest repository of genealogical information about Jews in Galicia.

Lvov meat market

  Lvov meat market

There are no kosher restaurants in Lvov, although Seven Piglets (9 Bandera Street; 380-322-975-507) is a good choice for authentic Ukrainian cuisine and offers several vegetarian options.

The Opera Hotel (45 Prospect Svobody; 380-322-259-000), located across the street from the Ivan Franko theater, is a newer establishment with clean and comfortable rooms and within walking distance of most Jewish attractions.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Lvov, but there are connections from Vienna, Frankfurt and Warsaw. as well as train and bus connections from Kiev, Odessa, Krakow and other East European cities.

However one arrives, it is worth spending several days in Lvov. Strolling down the cobblestoned streets in the Old Town and admiring the eclectic architecture is perhaps the city’s greatest pleasure.

Visiting Lvov also presents an opportunity to see a Jewish community that, despite serious challenges, courageously continues to observe centuries-old traditions.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
riga jewish memorial

The Jewish Traveler: Riga

By | Jewish Travel, Latvia | No Comments

A tumultuous past maybe, but the Jews are now on solid ground and Latvia’s repentant capital is one of Europe’s cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations.

Hadassah magazine – October, 2003

After a half century of Soviet occupation that dulled its luster and broke its spirit, Riga is on the mend. The city has undergone a stirring revitalization since Latvia regained its independence a dozen years ago. Now, with large, flower-filled parks, an eclectic mix of fascinating architecture and a medieval Old Town that is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets, Riga is once again becoming worthy of its pre-World War II sobriquet—Paris of the Baltics.

Riga's Art Nouveau architecture

Riga’s famous Art Nouveau architecture

The city also features several sites that chronicle the tumultuous and tragic history of its Jews. Recent years have brought long-awaited government recognition of Latvian culpability in the Holocaust, the construction of Jewish memorials and a modest revival of Riga’s once strong Jewish community.

Perched on the Daugava River about 10 miles inland from the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe, Riga is Latvia’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 850,000. The city underwent major renovations in 2001 to celebrate its 800-year anniversary and is one of the cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations in Europe.

About half of Riga’s residents and a majority of the city’s Jews speak Russian as their first language, a legacy of Soviet times when they came to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union. Since breaking free in 1991, Latvia has embraced democracy and a free-market economy. As a result, it has been invited to join both the European Union and NATO in 2004. But westernization has not brought the crowds that flock to other East European cities like Prague and Budapest. Visitors will find plenty of elbowroom to enjoy all that Riga has to offer.

The heart of the city is known as Vecriga, or Old Town, a maze of crooked streets flanked by historic buildings, towering church steeples, cafés and art galleries. Strolling through Old Town is perhaps Riga’s greatest pleasure. Street musicians perform Latvian folksongs, a nice backdrop for the interesting mishmash of Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Art Nouveau architecture.

Indeed, Riga boasts one of the largest and best-preserved collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. This distinctive German architectural style, also called Jugendstil, dates back about 100 years and features ornately crafted sculptures of flowers, animals, angels, monsters and other odd creatures. Some of Riga’s most stunning Art Nouveau buildings, clustered on Alberta Street in an area just northeast of Old Town, were designed by Jewish architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Art Nouveau architecture comprises about 40 percent of the buildings in central Riga.

History
Jews came relatively late to what is now Latvia; in the early fourteenth century they had been banned from settling in the region by an official decree of the ruling Master of the German Order. Some began to settle in the eastern part of the country in 1561 when that area fell under Polish rule, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only the most successful were given permission to reside in Riga. Even so, they were forced to live in special inns called Judenherberge and were not allowed to be buried in the city.

Memorial at Riga's Big Choral Synagogue

Memorial at Riga’s Big Choral Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941

Consequently, Jews had to shuttle their dead to graveyards in Poland until 1725, when they were finally given permission to build a cemetery. Still, by the mideighteenth century, Riga had just a few hundred Jewish residents. (In contrast, neighboring Lithuania was much more hospitable at the time and its largest city, Vilnius, became one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe.)

Despite a number of restrictions on buying land, choice of profession and education, by the eighteenth century Jews began to have an economic and cultural impact. They became expert craftsmen and prominent in such fields as timber, finance and medicine. Most of the city’s Jews lived in a ghetto in an area called Maskavas, less than a mile southeast of Old Town (due to Nazi destruction, there are few remnants today of the ghetto). In the nineteenth century, restrictions on Jews were eased and many began to move out of Maskavas into other parts of the city. By 1897, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Riga, about 8 percent of the city’s population.

Jews played a prominent role in the formation of an independent Latvian state between the two world wars. During this period, Jewish schools, theaters and newspapers thrived. From 1920 to 1935, the number of Jews in Riga grew from 24,000 to an all-time high of 44,000, more than 11 percent of the city’s inhabitants. At one time, there were as many as 14 synagogues. Riga even briefly became a focal point of the global Lubavitch movement in the late 1920’s when the Latvian government gave shelter and citizenship to its leader, Joseph I. Schneersohn, who had been exiled from the Soviet Union. From Latvia, the rebbe went to Poland before emigrating to the United States.

In 1940, the Red Army entered Riga and leading Jewish political and religious leaders were arrested. About 5,000 Jews were among the thousands of Latvians deported to Siberia. Riga fell to the Germans on July 1, 1941, and Nazi atrocities against the Jews began that day when hundreds were executed as “retribution” for the Germans who were killed during the taking of Old Town. One of the most horrific crimes during the Nazi occupation of Latvia took place just three days later. On July 4, 1941, more than 300 Jews—many of whom were refugees from Lithuania—were herded into the basement of the Big Choral Synagogue. German soldiers threw grenades into the windows and the building was burned down. There were no survivors.

Some 77,000 Jews from Latvia, and 30,000 to 40,000 more who were transported from other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, were killed on Latvian soil. Many were marched from the Riga ghetto in the winter of 1941-1942 to the Rumbula and Bikernieku forests, a few miles from the city center. There they were shot at a rate of up to 1,000 per hour, falling on top of those who had died before. Many of the killers were members of the local Latvian police force. Jews also perished at the Kaiserwald prison camp in the suburb of Mezaparks and at the Salaspils concentration camp 12 miles southeast of Riga. Only about 150 of Riga’s Jews survived the war. Some were saved by local residents; others managed to survive until the Red Army recaptured the city in the summer of 1944.

The end of the war brought the return of thousands of Latvian Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. Other Jews from throughout the Soviet Union also settled in Riga. In the 1970’s, Riga became a major center of Jewish dissident activity. By 1989, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Riga’s Jewish population had climbed to about 23,000, a number that has steadily dwindled in recent years, as many Jews have emigrated to Israel, Great Britain and the United States. Of those who remain, more than a third do not hold Latvian citizenship due to restrictive naturalization laws enacted after independence that were aimed at the country’s large Russian minority. Such laws have been eased in the past few years, although applicants for citizenship still must pass a Latvian language test.

Community
Riga’s Jewish community is well organized in a model resembling Jewish federations in American cities. Religious life is headed by Rabbi Nathan Barkan, chief rabbi of Riga and Latvia. There are a number of Jewish schools in Riga that educate several hundred students at all age levels, a Jewish hospital and numerous organizations representing Jewish interests.

Under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, Chabad has had an active presence in Riga for more than 10 years. The organization runs Jewish schools and summer camps, helps feed the poor, holds a community Seder each Passover, erects a sukka in one of Riga’s main parks and otherwise attempts to rekindle Jewish traditions that were largely dormant during Soviet times.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

  Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

One of the more visible components of Riga’s Jewish community is the Center for Judaic Studies, created in 1998 and housed in the University of Latvia’s main building at Rainis Boulevard 19 (e-mail: ad@lanet.lv). Headed by Professor Ruvin Ferber, the center offers courses in Jewish history, tradition and philosophy. It has a small library and every two years organizes an international conference called “Jews in a Changing World.” Notably, the opening ceremony to the 2001 conference drew the Latvian government’s president, past president, prime minister and several cabinet ministers.

Relations between the Latvian government and the Jewish community have been on solid footing in recent years. Latvia’s popular president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the few women heads of state in the world, has been vocal in her support of the Jewish community and has initiated a Holocaust education program in the schools. Sadly, though, the government has not successfully prosecuted any Latvian war criminals, and until recently failed to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Latvian collaborators during the Holocaust.

Sights
Riga’s sole surviving synagogue, the Peitav Shul, celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2005.

Riga's Peitav Shul

The Peitav Shul, Riga’s sole surviving synagogue

Located at Peitavas 6/8 (telephone: 011-371-722-4549), this tall, narrow Orthodox prayer house is tightly wedged between other buildings in Old Town, a fact that likely saved it from Nazi destruction. It is believed that the Nazis would have burned it down as they did the other synagogues, but its proximity to neighboring buildings made them afraid to set it afire. Instead, they converted it into a warehouse and horse stall. The synagogue features a traditional two-story interior—women pray upstairs—and there is a small display in the lobby with items about Latvia’s Jewish community.

About a 15-minute walk from the Peitav Shul, at the busy intersection of Gogola and Dzirnavu Streets, stands the remains of the Big Choral Synagogue. In 1988, a large gray memorial stone was placed a few feet from the synagogue’s surviving brick foundation. It is not uncommon to see flowers and candles at the base of the memorial.

The Jewish Community Center, known locally as Aleph, is located in the central part of the city at Skolas 6 (371-728-9580). The building dates back to before World War I and once housed a Jewish theater. It assumed its current function in 2000 with financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The building’s third floor houses a small but informative museum called The Jews in Latvia (371-728-3484; open Sunday through Thursday 12 to 5), which chronicles the history of Jewish life in Latvia going back to the eighteenth century. Exhibits show the many contributions of Jews in Latvian society, as well as the suffering experienced at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. An uplifting section called “The Jewish People Survived” showcases the rebirth of Jewish life in Latvia since independence. At the entrance to the museum, visitors can purchase maps that identify the locations of former Jewish sites in Riga, including the Old Jewish Cemetery on Liksnas Street, which was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted by the Soviets into the Park of the Communist Brigades.

Jewish memorial in Latvia's Bikernieku Forest

Jewish memorial in Bikernieku Forest outside of Riga

Two memorials, recently erected in forests just outside Riga, have brought renewed attention to the Holocaust in Latvia. In 2001, one was dedicated in the Bikernieku forest, where about 30,000 Jews perished in 1942. Funded in part by a German charitable fund, the memorial consists of a white altar surrounded by jagged rocks. Each section of rocks represents a liquidated Jewish community from where the victims originated.

In November 2002, another memorial was unveiled at the Rumbula forest, where about 25,000 Jews were murdered in 1941. Significantly, the Rumbula monument acknowledges the involvement of the local population in the massacre. President Vike-Freiberga, who attended the dedication ceremony, called it “a day of mourning for all of Latvia because this crime happened on our soil and our people took part in it.” The memorial, funded by donations from Germany, Israel, Latvia and the United States, includes a large menora surrounded by miniature obelisks bearing victims’ names.

Riga’s most impressive museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Streinieku laukums 1; 371-721-2715; closed Mondays), thoroughly documents the destruction of Latvian sovereignty by the Soviets and Nazis. Located near the Daugava River in Old Town in a building that looks like a big black box, the museum includes historical documents, artifacts, pictures and a replica of a barracks in a Siberian Soviet prison camp where thousands of Latvians were deported. There is also a small section devoted to the Holocaust, including a display of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.

Other Sights
Given the country’s history, it’s not hard to understand why Riga’s Freedom Monument is such an important symbol to Latvians. Erected in 1935 and located at the intersection of Brivibas and Raina Streets just east of Old Town, the monument is topped by a bronze female statue affectionately called Milda by the locals and bears the Latvian inscription Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom). Two soldiers guard the monument and there’s an hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Latvians regularly lay flowers at the base of the monument to honor the victims of totalitarianism. It is said that those who dared to do so during Soviet times ended up with an extended, all-expenses paid vacation to Siberia.

For a magnificent view of Old Town from above, visit the thirteenth-century St. Peter’s Church (Skarnu 19). There’s an elevator that goes to the top of the spire, which at one time was the highest tower in Europe. Another impressive church in Old Town is the red-brick Dome Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics. It also dates back to the thirteenth century and now houses a 6,768-pipe organ, the fourth largest in the world.

The best place for shoppers to spend a lat (as the local money is called) or two is the centraltirgus, or central market, one of Europe’s largest and most colorful markets. It is housed in and around five huge buildings that were used as zeppelin hangars during World War I. There are more than 1,000 vendors, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to bootleg CD’s and fake Rolex watches. Amber jewelry is the most pervasive item sold in Riga’s souvenir shops.

Latvia's Salaspils concentration camp

  Salaspils concentration camp

Side Trips
In the Salaspils concentration camp where tens of thousands of people were murdered, visitors aregreeted by a huge concrete wall bearing the words: “Beyond these gates the earth groans.”

On the grounds inside stand several large sculptures that evoke the suffering and defiance of the camp’s victims. A metronome inside a long block of polished stone ticks endlessly, a haunting echo of the hearts that once beat at the camp. Salaspils is a half-hour drive from Riga, or you can take a train to the Darzini station and then walk on a path through the woods for about 20 minutes to the memorial.

Known as the “Switzerland of Latvia,” Sigulda, a small town 90 minutes east by train, is one of the most popular day-trip destinations from Riga. With hills instead of mountains, Sigulda may not entirely deserve such a nickname. But it is a great place for hikers to explore, with sandstone caves, lakes and a picturesque wooded valley dissected by the Gauja River. Sigulda also features the impressive red-brick Turaida Castle, which dates back to 1214.

Reading
The Latvians: A Short History (Hoover Institution Press) by Andrejs Plakans gives a good overview of Latvian history from medieval times to the mid-1990’s, with an emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Max Michelson’s City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga (University Press of Colorado) chronicles his experiences and ultimate survival in Riga’s Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide is one of the few guidebooks devoted specifically to Latvia. Riga in Your Pocket, a small booklet sold in Riga hotels and souvenir shops (it can also be viewed on the Internet: www.inyourpocket. com/latvia/riga/en), provides up-to-date information about sightseeing, hotels and restaurants.

Recommendations
One of Old Riga’s most comfortable and reasonably priced hotels is the Radi un Draugi (Friends and Relatives). Owned and run by British Latvians, the hotel is just a block away from the Pietav Shul and offers clean and quiet rooms (371-722-0372; fax: 371-724-2239; e-mail: radi@drau gi.lv). More upscale and located in the city center not far from the Jewish Community Center is the Reval Hotel Latvija, one of Riga’s largest and poshest hotels (371-777-2222; fax: 371-777-2221; e-mail: latvija.sales@revalhotels.com). The bar on the twenty-sixth floor offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city.

For kosher food, Café Lechaim (371-728-0235; entrance on Dzirnavu Street) is a small restaurant located in a corner basement of the Jewish Community Center. The food is simple and cheap. Shalom (371-736-4911), a five-minute taxi ride away at A. Briana 10, offers nonkosher Jewish dishes. Look for blue neon Stars of David in the front window.

Riga isn’t the easiest place to get to. There are no direct flights from the United States and its fairly remote location in northeastern Europe makes it a long bus or train ride from other major European cities. But it’s well worth taking a side trip from places like London, Moscow, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Warsaw or Prague, all of which offer nonstop flights into Riga. It’s a rare chance to see an alluring, vibrant and historic city that is yet untarnished by hordes of tourists.

© 2008 Dan Fellner

Tokyo synagogue kippahs for sale

Judaism with a Japanese twist

By | Japan, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Jewish response to tragedy in Japan demonstrates tikkun olam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – June 8, 2012

TOKYO- It was the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011, and Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu was busy getting ready for Shabbat services at the Jewish Community of Japan’s building in an upscale section of central Tokyo called Shibuya.

At 2:46 p.m., the building started to shake, an alarm sounded, and Di Gesu and the rest of his small staff rushed outside. Standing in a parking lot, he could see buildings in the neighborhood actually swaying back and forth and the ground beneath him made him feel like he was on an airport people-mover.

Tokyo Rabbi Di Gesu

Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu in the sanctuary of the Jewish Community of Japan

“The asphalt was moving – going back and forth,” he recalls. “It was like being in a dream.”

Di Gesu had been living in Japan for two years and had felt tremors there several times before, but nothing close to the 9.0 earthquake – the biggest in Japanese recorded history – that rocked the island that Friday afternoon and triggered a massive tsunami in the northeastern part of the country.

Once it became clear that Tokyo had escaped relatively unscathed, Di Gesu decided to go forward with Shabbat services that evening, even though only four people turned up.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said, noting the Shabbat prayers “had a different meaning this time, as the roaring waters mentioned in the psalms were not a poetical image, but in reality a few hundred kilometers from us.”

Wanting to learn more about Jewish life in the world’s largest metropolitan area, I met Di Gesu on a rainy afternoon at the Jewish Community of Japan in late April during a weeklong visit to Tokyo. I also asked him about the much-heralded Jewish response to what proved to be the most expensive natural disaster in human history.

Centered off the northeastern coast of Japan near the city of Sendai, about 190 miles north of Tokyo, the quake and tsunami led to a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in the region. Nearly 20,000 people lost their lives and more than 300,000 Japanese were rendered homeless. Property damage has been estimated at $235 billion.

As soon as Shabbat ended, Di Gesu was contacted by the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo about getting involved in relief efforts. Even though none of the estimated 2,000 Jews living in Japan had been killed, hurt or even displaced by the tragedy, Di Gesu didn’t hesitate. After all, he thought, what better way to demonstrate one of Judaism’s guiding principles – tikkun olam (repairing the world)?

Jewish Community of Japan building

Entrance to the Jewish Community of Japan building

Di Gesu sent out an email to his congregants appealing for help. One bought more than two tons of flour and had it delivered to the displaced. Another congregant, an 11-year-old girl named Lucie Kapner whose father teaches at the JCC’s Sunday school, single-handedly organized a bicycle collection program. Nearly 100 bicycles were sent to disaster victims in a destitute town.

“I was extremely proud of her,” said Di Gesu. “It meant that her parents had taught her the right things, had instilled in her good Jewish values.”

Other congregants organized food drives and took time off work to help with the cleanup. An account at a Japanese bank was set up for Jews in Japan and around the world to donate money. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations got involved. All told, Jews around the world contributed nearly $3 million in disaster relief, according to Di Gesu.

“The most amazing thing to us is that we had so much support from abroad – from all over Europe and all over the U.S.,” he said.

Israel was one of the first countries to come to Japan’s aid, establishing a 50-member field hospital in a coastal fishing village that was devastated by the tsunami. When the Israelis finished their work, they left behind most of the medical equipment they had brought with them.

The Chabad House of Tokyo also played a vital role in disaster relief. Rabbi Binyomin Edery, who has lived in Tokyo since 1999, made more than 50 trips to northern Japan, personally delivering aid supplies.

Di Gesu said the Jewish assistance has helped build important “bridges of understanding” with the Japanese public, many of whom had known little about Jews before the disaster, good or bad. “They come with no baggage,” he said of the Japanese attitude toward Jews, adding that in his three years in Japan, the only anti-Semitism he has witnessed came from foreigners.

There are only two synagogues in Japan – one in Kobe and the Jewish Community of Japan, a Conservative congregation in Tokyo that was established in 1953. That original synagogue was torn down in 2008 and replaced on the same site a year later with a sleek, gray-block building designed by an award-winning Japanese architect.

Yarmulkes made from kimono fabric in Japan

A challah cover and yarmulkes made from kimono fabric

Di Gesu said at one time the site was home to a samurai mansion. When going inside, visitors are politely asked to remove their shoes and replace them with slippers, a Japanese custom. The most popular items for sale in the gift shop are colorful challah covers and yarmulkes handmade from Japanese-kimono fabric.

It’s Judaism with a Japanese twist.

The building also contains more traditional Jewish elements, such as a sanctuary, kosher kitchen (meat is imported from the U.S.), a Hebrew school, library and mikvah. About 100 families belong to the congregation, 80 percent of whom are American. Di Gesu said many of the congregants have Japanese spouses.

Visitors to Japan are welcome to attend Shabbat services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings or enjoy a kosher meal in a congenial atmosphere (reservations are suggested, rsvp@jccjapan.or.jp).

Like most of his congregants, Di Gesu is an expatriate. He was born in Sicily, went to college in Rome, and later graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Before coming to Japan, he led a Conservative congregation in Long Island, N.Y. He speaks seven languages and has translated half a dozen books from Hebrew to Italian.

Tokyo pagoda

A five-story pagoda in the Asakusa section of Tokyo

What’s it like being a rabbi in Japan? “It’s absolutely unique,” he said. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re at the end of the world. We are really far away.”

Di Gesu said there’s a common misconception that Japanese people are not religious. “Being in the religion business, it’s interesting to me how religion pervades everything, even though when you ask them, they tell you, ‘No, I’m not religious.'”

For example, Di Gesu said that at the groundbreaking of the new synagogue, a Shinto priest was brought in to offer a blessing at the request of the Japanese construction crew. “Otherwise, they refused to work,” he said.

Di Gesu misses the multiculturalism of New York City. People say Japanese culture is so homogenous that even the cab drivers are Japanese. But Di Gesu is making the most of the experience, taking Japanese-language classes three times a week and immersing himself in Japanese culture.

“Yes, I miss the multiculturalism,” he said. “But here you can learn about a really rich culture that’s totally fascinating.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Barbados synagogue

A secret in the Caribbean

By | Barbados, Cruising, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Barbados home to historically significant Jewish sites

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 6, 2012

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – It may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean.

Barbados, known best for its spectacular white-sand beaches, posh resorts and a rich British colonial heritage, also happens to be home to one of the most historically significant Jewish sites in the Americas.

Barbados synagogue

The historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados

I recently visited Bridgetown, the picturesque capital city of Barbados, during an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise on the Holland America Maasdam.  Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, with a population of about 286,000.  It achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.

After a leisurely 30-minute walk from the Maasdam to downtown Bridgetown, I reached a street called Synagogue Lane, turned right and soon found myself in a small courtyard, marveling at several centuries of Jewish history.

In this quiet complex five blocks north of the Barbados Parliament building, visitors can see a reconstructed Sephardic synagogue called Nidhe Israel (“the scattered of Israel”).  The original building dates back to 1654, making it the earliest constructed synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use today.  There is also a Jewish cemetery with more than 300 graves, an interactive museum chronicling the important role Jews played in the island’s history, and a recently discovered 17th-century mikvah, or ritual bath.

Barbados Jewish museum

Museum Manager Celso Brewster discusses the history of the Barbados Jewish community

I had previously visited historic synagogues on the Caribbean islands of Curacao and St. Thomas, both of which are famous for their sand-covered floors.  Those two shuls may be better-known and attract more visitors than their Barbados counterpart, yet Nidhe Israel is the only one of the three dating back to the 17th century.  (The Curacao synagogue, consecrated in 1732, has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.)

Celso Brewster, who has been the manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum since it first opened in 2008, showed us around the facility. Our port-stop in Barbados happened to fall on a Sunday, and with the museum normally closed on weekends, I was afraid I would not be able to see its exhibits.

But I had contacted Brewster in advance of our visit, and he was kind enough to open up the museum and synagogue for me and several other passengers on the Maasdam, including a rabbi whom Holland America brought onboard to lead Shabbat and Hanukkah services during the cruise.  (Contact Brewster by email at nidhe@caribsurf.com and he will gladly arrange weekend viewings.)

Inside Barbados synagogue

The sanctuary inside the Nidhe Israel Synagogue

Inside the museum, we learned that Jews first arrived on Barbados in 1628, driven from Brazil by the Inquisition.  They brought with them expertise in growing sugar cane and in windmill technology.  As noted on the exhibit greeting visitors at the museum’s entrance:  “For these Jews and their descendants, coconut milk and sugar cane were the milk and honey of the land promised to the people of Abraham.”

With Nidhe Israel as its anchor, the Jewish community in Barbados prospered under British rule.  The synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and later rebuilt.  But the number of Jews living on the island slowly dwindled over the years due to emigration and assimilation. It is believed that the last of the Sephardic descendants of the Brazilian Jews left the island in 1929.  The synagogue fell into disrepair and was sold.

The community was slowly re-established in the 1930s by Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe who built another synagogue, Shaare Tzedek, in a residential neighborhood. However, Nidhe Israel remained neglected and unused as a house of worship.  The Barbadian government announced plans to demolish it in 1980 to make way for a new Supreme Court building.

But Paul Altman, a prominent Jewish businessman whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Nidhe Israel, pleaded with the prime minister of Barbados to save the historic building.

Barbados Jewish cemetery

The restored Jewish cemetery has a gravestone dating back to 1658

“He went to the prime minister armed with photographs taken in the 1800s of the inside of the synagogue,” said Brewster.  “And the prime minister then relented and told him that if you can raise the funds to save the synagogue, the government will return the synagogue to Jewish hands.”

Altman launched an international fundraising campaign and was able to raise more than $1 million to restore the synagogue.  After being dormant for nearly 60 years, Nidhe Israel was rededicated in 1987.  The two-story pink building, with beautiful Gothic arches, features stunning chandeliers, and an ark and bimah crafted with Barbadian mahogany.  The building is now owned by the Barbados National Trust.

From December through March, the synagogue hosts Friday night services for the island’s nearly 100 year-round Jewish residents, not to mention the scores of Jewish tourists who flock to Barbados during the winter months.  Members of the congregation conduct the services, as there is no rabbi.  Shaare Tzedek, which is air-conditioned and has a kitchen, is used for services during the rest of the year.

Barbados mikvah

The recently discovered 17th century full-immersion mikvah

The Jewish cemetery, which has a gravestone dating all the way back to 1658, was also restored.  And in 2008, a 260-year-old building in the same complex – originally a Jewish school – reopened as the Nidhe Israel Museum.  Its main hall includes several interactive exhibits as well as a floor with glass panels covering sand embedded with artifacts from the cemetery.

The final attraction was discovered in 2008 when archaeologists were digging in the site’s parking lot looking for what had been the rabbi’s house.  Instead, they unearthed an ancient full-immersion mikvah, believed to have been built even before the synagogue.  But at first, they weren’t sure what it was.

“We thought maybe it was a flooded storeroom filled with ancient rainwater,” said Brewster.  “Then one day, two Israeli tourists came, looked over the top, and said, ‘Oh, you have a mikvah.’  That is how we knew for sure.”

Bridgetown Barbados

Bridgetown, the colorful capital city of Barbados

Brewster said the museum averages only about seven visitors per day, a number he believes will steadily grow as word spreads of the historical treasures awaiting Jewish tourists to Barbados.  He especially hopes to attract a larger share of the nearly 500,000 passengers who arrive each year at Bridgetown’s cruise terminal.

“This has been called the greatest secret in Bridgetown,” he said. “Even Barbadians don’t know we exist.

“It is a very, very historical site, not only for Barbados, but for the Jews who fled the Inquisition, both in Europe and South America. It represents a new beginning, and so therefore, everyone should know about it.  Everyone should see it.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

 

Vietnam Jewish Chabad

Homemade challah in Ho Chi Minh City

By | Jewish Travel, Vietnam | No Comments

Chabad meeting the needs of Jews in Vietnam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 14, 2011

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Carefully following the directions I printed off the Chabad-Lubavitch website, I set off on foot in Ho Chi Minh City in search of the sole outpost of Jewish communal life in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City

 Chabad’s new facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I passed the InterContinental Hotel on Hai Ba Troung Street and made a right turn at the heavily guarded French consulate.

Each street crossing was perilous with throngs of Vietnamese motorbike drivers seemingly paying no attention to pedestrians.  Even the sidewalks offered little respite from the chaos as food stalls, newspaper hawkers and parked scooters left scant room for walking.

Continuing on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street past a soccer stadium, I turned left at alley #12 and walked another 200 yards. There, on the left side of the alley, across from a row of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to stir-fried meals of rice and meat, was a three-story villa marked “5A” with a large blue sign in Hebrew and English welcoming me to “Chabad Jewish Center Vietnam.”

It might have been a rather unusual setting for a Jewish house of worship. But as I learned when I stepped inside and met with Rabbi Menachem Hartman, Judaism in this Southeast Asian city of 9 million people is surprisingly robust.

As we sipped papaya shakes prepared in Chabad’s kosher kitchen, Hartman, a 29-year-old Israeli, told me about Jewish life in Ho Chi Minh City. He and his wife arrived here in 2006 to establish the first permanent Chabad center in the country.

Hartman said 150-200 Jews – “it’s up and down” – live in Ho Chi Minh City year-round.  They are drawn to the country for its growing economic opportunities, warm climate and relatively inexpensive cost of living.

Rabbi Menachem Hartman

 Rabbi Menachem Hartman in the Chabad sanctuary

There is also a group of businesspeople whose work brings them to the country on a regular basis, as well as Jewish travelers coming for a one-time visit.  I fit into the latter category, as I was on a 10-day vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia with my friend Henry Stein of Tempe.

Wherever they come from and whatever brings them to Vietnam, many feel compelled to connect with fellow Jews and visit Chabad House.

“Each has their own reason for coming here,” said Hartman. “Some come for the kosher food. Some want to hear Hebrew. Some are just missing home.”

He said 40-50 visitors attend Shabbat services every Friday evening. Afterward, they sit down to a meal of homemade challah, Israeli salad, soup and kosher meat imported from nearby Thailand.

To keep up with the growing number of visitors, Chabad moved to a new facility in October, twice the size of its previous location. The kosher kitchen and a spacious restaurant occupy the first floor. The second floor houses a sanctuary and library.

Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

 Motorbikes are popular transport in Ho Chi Minh City

The top floor hosts Sunday school classes and an everyday kindergarten with six children enrolled. During my December visit, the school was closed because Rachel Hartman, the rabbi’s wife and one of the school’s teachers, had temporarily returned to Israel to give birth to the couple’s third child.

There also are plans soon to build a mikvah, or ritual bath.

It’s beautiful,” Hartman said of the new facility. “People who are coming feel more comfortable. We feel very happy being here.”

During his tenure in Vietnam, the rabbi has presided over seders, High Holiday services, one bris and three bar mitzvahs, one of which was for a family that stopped in Vietnam while on a cruise.

“You need an open mind for different things, different ideas,” he said of being a rabbi in Southeast Asia. “For me, everything looks normal. For some people, this looks unbelievable.”

When Chabad first opened in the country, Hartman said there was some reticence on the part of the Vietnamese government, which was concerned that there would be an attempt to convert the local population to Judaism.

“They know that’s not what we do,” he said, adding that relations now with the government are positive. “They are OK with us.”

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 following the withdrawal of American troops. Saigon, which had been the capital of South Vietnam and the headquarters for America’s military during the war, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the former leader of North Vietnam. Most locals, though, still refer to the city as “Saigon.”

Vietnam fruit vendors

 Vietnam fruit vendors

Hartman said he has met several dozen Jewish war veterans who have come back to visit the country in which they fought 40 years ago. One veteran – a doctor and regular Chabad visitor – returns each year to volunteer at a medical clinic.

“He told me he comes every year because he wants to give back to Vietnam what America took during the war,” he said.

Hartman said there is hope that it won’t be long before there is a formal Jewish presence in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Another Chabad facility recently opened in Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia.

“If there are Jews, there is Chabad House,” he said.

Before I left, Hartman showed me Chabad’s guestbook, which was full of glowing comments from recent visitors. One note was written by an American woman who had visited in December. She was traveling with her husband, who adheres to a kosher diet and would only eat fish at local restaurants.

“My husband was starting to look like a fish after three weeks in Vietnam,” she wrote. “Thank goodness Chabad was here and we could meet extended family and eat meat.”

© 2011 Dan Fellner

Cape Town South Africa

Cruising Jewish Cape Town

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, South Africa | No Comments

Cultural sites underline contribution of influential community

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – February 20, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –With the dramatic flat-topped Table Mountain and Twelve Apostles mountain range looming over white-sand beaches and a stunning harbor, Cape Town, South Africa, has rightly earned a reputation as one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world.

It’s also been a hospitable home to Jews, who arrived in waves from Europe in the late 19th century, later played a leading role in the fight against apartheid, and today give more money per capita to Israel than any other Jewish community.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Cape Town and see its Jewish sites during a 16-day cruise aboard the Silversea Silver Wind that sailed from South Africa to Kenya.

Cape Town's Table Mountain

Cape Town’s dramatic Table Mountain overlooks the city’s harbor

Most of the important Jewish sites, including the South African Jewish Museum, the Gardens Shul, Cape Town Holocaust Center, and Gitlin Library, are located in the same complex on an outdoor square in the heart of downtown Cape Town, just four blocks from the South African Parliament.

My first stop was the Jewish Museum, which attracts about 15,000 people a year.  Visitors get a sense of the history of the Jewish community even before entering the building.

The entrance to the museum is through the exterior of the first synagogue built in South Africa, which was consecrated in 1863. Inside are the original wooden ark and mosaic floor and other artifacts from the synagogue.

I had arranged in advance to meet Shea (pronounced She-uh) Albert, the museum’s executive director. She was kind enough to show me around and pointed out that every window in the museum has a view of Table Mountain, which is what the Jewish immigrants first saw when arriving in Cape Town by ship.

cape town Jewish museum

The original wooden and mosaic floor from South Africa’s first synagogue

The museum depicts what life was like for those immigrants and does so with high-tech and interactive exhibits, including a bank of touch-screen computers where visitors can research their family roots.

“Other museums usually say, ‘Don’t touch,'” said Albert. “We say, ‘Please touch, please engage, please experience what the history really means.'”

I especially enjoyed a reconstructed shtetl from Riteve, Lithuania in the 1880s. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of the Jews now living in Cape Town have ancestors who emigrated from Lithuania. The shtetl exhibit features a scale model of a school, shop and modest house. Inside the home, the table is set for Shabbat dinner.

“People come to the shtetl and they actually cry sometimes because they can realize how it must have been and thereby feel closer to their grandparents,” said Albert.

Cape Town Gardens Shul

The Gardens Shul in Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest active synagogue

The museum also showcases the role played by Jews in the struggle against apartheid, including Isie Maisels, who was Nelson Mandela’s defense lawyer during the 1963 trial that led to Mandela’s incarceration for treason, and Helen Suzman, who for many years was the sole anti-apartheid voice in the South African Parliament.

Mandela was at the museum’s opening in 2000, and there is a quote from his autobiography displayed on one of the museum’s walls: “In my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Next door to the museum is the Gardens Shul, also known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. It opened in 1905, making it the oldest active congregation in South Africa. It can seat more than 1,400 people.

Cape Town Holocaust Museum

Cape Town’s Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in Africa

About 15,000 Jews now live in Cape Town, which has a dozen synagogues. Many of them live in an area of town called Sea Point, a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown that has numerous apartment buildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I rode a tour bus through the area, which has a kosher butcher and deli.

Albert calls it “a cohesive community” that is deeply committed to the state of Israel and looking after its own sick and needy. “In that, it mirrors Jewish communities everywhere,” she said.

I also visited the Cape Town Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in all of Africa. The Nazis’ rise to power is chronicled and there are vivid displays depicting concentration camps.

The facility also looks at the Holocaust from a South African perspective, comparing early Nazi Germany to the racial injustice of apartheid. To its credit, the government of South Africa now requires Holocaust education in all public schools.

The last stop on my tour of Jewish sites in Cape Town was the Jacob Gitlin Library, also housed on the campus adjacent to the Jewish Museum. Gitlin, who immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania in 1902, was a leader in the South African Zionist movement.

Silversea Silver Wind

The Silversea Silver Wind docked in Cape Town

The library contains about 20,000 Jewish-themed books, periodicals and audio-visual material in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The library also gives non-Jews a chance to learn about Jewish history, culture and traditions.

Once the Silver Wind departed Cape Town and sailed on to other ports in South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya, I focused on seeing animals in their natural habitats and learning more about the indigenous cultures in the region. But it wasn’t an end to my Jewish-related activities on this trip.

I was pleased that Silversea arranged Friday night Shabbat services for its passengers, providing prayer books, kippot, Shabbat candles, wine and challah. There were only about 200 passengers aboard this particular sailing, but we still had minyans on both Friday nights at sea. One of the Silver Wind’s senior officers, a Jew from Florida, prayed with our group of Americans and Brits.

Silver Wind Shabbat services

 Shabbat services onboard the Silver Wind

Indeed, I have found many cruise lines to be more than accommodating to Jewish passengers. Silversea, for instance, in addition to arranging Shabbat services, has a rabbi on board to host a Passover seder and to conduct services during the High Holidays.

“A good percentage of Silversea’s guests are Jewish,” noted Brad Ball, the company’s director of corporate communications, who was onboard our sailing.

For me, it meant a lot being able to recite familiar prayers with fellow Jews sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa.  It made the distance from home seem not quite so far.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
Puerto Vallarta Mismaloya Beach

A minyan in Puerto Vallarta

By | Cruising, Jewish Travel, Mexico | No Comments

Couple creates Jewish community in Mexican resort town

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 2, 2009

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico –When Mel and Barbara Bornstein started looking more than a quarter-century ago for a place to retire so they could escape Chicago winters, they had two requirements – a home on the beach and Jewish fellowship.

Mel and Barbara Bornstein

The Bornsteins on the back patio of their home in Puerto Vallarta

“It is difficult, as a Jew, not to have Jewish friends,” Mel said, explaining the latter requirement.

The Bornsteins, who celebrated their 60th anniversary last July, chose Puerto Vallarta, a popular tourist destination on Mexico’s west coast. They live in a beautiful condo with a back patio overlooking Banderas Bay (Bay of Flags) in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The scenery is magnificent, the weather sunny and warm year-round, and with more than 2 million visitors each year, Puerto Vallarta offers great shopping, restaurants and cultural attractions.

But Jewish fellowship? That may have been a problem when the Bornsteins started coming here 29 years ago. Now, thanks largely to their own efforts, Puerto Vallarta has a cohesive and growing Jewish community with well-attended events to observe the major holidays.

I spent a day with the Bornsteins last month in Puerto Vallarta during a stop on a Mexican cruise.

I had visited the area for a full week several years ago and enjoyed its main attractions – a charming Old Town with colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, the 11-block seaside malecon, or boardwalk, known for its unique sculptures including the iconic bronze figure of a boy riding a sea horse, and Mismaloya Beach, where the 1963 movie “Night of the Iguana” was filmed.

It was that movie, starring Richard Burton (Liz Taylor came along, which attracted hordes of paparazzi), that helped put Puerto Vallarta on the tourism map, transforming a quiet fishing village into what is now a teeming resort destination with a population of more than a quarter-million people.

Puerto Vallarta Passover seder

Passover seder in Puerto Vallarta (photo courtesy of Mel Bornstein)

On this visit, I hoped to revisit some of those same sites, but also wanted to learn what it’s like to be Jewish south of the border. Are kosher foods available? What about anti-Semitism? Can Jews from different places and varying levels of observance come together to form a community?

It was easy to get in touch with Mel. Before I left, I did a quick Google search of “Jews in Puerto Vallarta” and came across several references to Mel and the events he organizes.  I made arrangements to meet when we disembarked the cruise ship.  He and Barbara were kind enough to show me the city, including their lovely home, take me to one of their favorite restaurants for fish tacos, and tell me why they spend so much of their time organizing Jewish events.

“It started because no one wanted the responsibility and that made it a challenge for us,” said Mel.

Added Barbara, “We’re keeping our Jewish ties, which are very important to us.”

Mismaloya Beach

Puerto Vallarta’s scenic Mismaloya Beach, where “Night of the Iguana” was filmed

Mel estimates that 200 Jews live in Puerto Vallarta during the busy winter season, most of them Americans or Canadians.  A Hanukkah dinner he orga nized last month at a local restaurant attracted 148 people. They lit Hanukkah candles, sang songs and feasted on beef brisket, roasted chicken, more than 500 latkes and rugelach for dessert.

For Passover last year, Mel brought in two Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., rented out a local restaurant and had kosher food shipped in from Mexico City.  The seder was attended by 88 people.  A Chabad rabbi from Guadalajara officiated at High Holiday services last fall, which were held at the Puerto Vallarta Holiday Inn.

Mel keeps Jews in the area informed about upcoming events via a 400-name e-mail distribution list.  “You know Schindler’s list?  He has the Bornstein list,” joked Barbara.

Seahorse statue in Puerto Vallarta

 The iconic bronze seahorse statue on the malecon

He regularly gets e-mails from observant visitors wanting to know if kosher food is available.  While there are a few items for sale at the local Costco and Sam’s Club, most kosher food is shipped in from Mexico City, where there are 23 synagogues and about 37,000 Jews.

“You order it today, and tomorrow you have it in Puerto Vallarta,” said Mel.

Indeed, Mel is the go-to guy for all Jewish needs in Puerto Vallarta.  Need a minyan to say the mourner’s Kaddish?  No problem, Mel can organize it in a hurry.  Looking for a mohel? Mel knows where to find one.  He was even asked to locate a klezmer band.  If Mel can’t find it, he’ll find someone who can.

As to the reaction of the local Mexican population, Mel said they have accepted the Jews with open arms.  “There is no anti-Semitism here,” he said.  “There are no fears of terrorism.  It’s a good safe place to be.”

There are a few Mexican Jews living in Puerto Vallarta, some of whom have taken part in Mel’s events and learned more about their Jewish identity.  “There are Mexicans who are Jewish who are coming out of their shell now,” he said.  “They didn’t know why they were supposed to light candles on Friday night.  Now they know why.”

Mel refers to the group as the PVJC – Puerto Vallarta Jewish Community.  But he wants to add another “C” to the end of the acronym – Center.  He’s trying to raise money to buy a building so that Jews will have a place of their own for religious services, weddings and b’nai mitzvah, social events, classes in Judaism and kosher meals.

But he needs a benefactor to step forward if a Jewish community center is to become a reality.  “We are open to offers from anybody who wants to name it after themselves, their father or some other family member,” he said.

If you’re looking for a warm and sunny place to retire with a backyard overlooking the sea, Mel makes a strong case for Puerto Vallarta.

“People who are thinking of retiring to Mexico should know that there is a fellowship of Jews down here and that as time goes on, there will be more and more Jews,” he said.  “With the ocean and the scenery and the people, there is no place in the world that we have ever found that compares.”

Editor’s note:  I’m sad to report that Mel passed away in 2013.  Donna Feldman (helth1@sbcglobal.net) is now organizing Jewish events in Puerto Vallarta.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
view of valleta malta harbor

New Chabad Center and Kosher Restaurant Open in Malta

By | Jewish Travel, Malta | No Comments

Mediterranean island-country popular destination for European and Israeli tourists

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — June 28, 2013

BUGIBBA, Malta – I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to make history.

My friend Henry Stein of Tempe and I were on a public bus on Malta’s northern coast in a hard-to-pronounce town called Bugibba.  We had just finished a scenic 90-minute cruise through the harbors surrounding this Mediterranean island-nation’s capital city of Valletta and were headed back to our hotel.

Malta Chabad

 Malta’s new Chabad center and kosher restaurant

While I was gazing at the blue waters of St. Paul’s Bay to the left of the road, a large sign on a whitewashed building on the right caught Henry’s attention.

“Chabad is here,” he exclaimed, a piece of information that caught both of us by surprise.

Five minutes later, after arriving at the Bugibba bus station, we walked back to the building and entered one of the newest Chabad chapters in the world.  We introduced ourselves to Rabbi Chaim Segal and learned that the facility opened only four months earlier.

Chabad has a presence in about 80 countries, in places as diverse as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal and Cambodia.  Malta is the newest country to join the list.

To my surprise, I also learned from the rabbi that we were the first Americans to set foot inside the doors of Chabad Malta.

Rabbi Chaim Segal

Rabbi Chaim Segal and his wife Mushka, co-directors of the new Chabad chapter in Malta

A few days later, I sat down with the rabbi and his wife Mushka, who is co-director of the new facility, which includes a small synagogue and a kosher restaurant called L’Chaim.  I wanted to learn more about Jewish life on Malta and why Chabad decided to establish a beachhead on this tiny island that is one-tenth the size of Rhode Island.

The Segals, both of whom are from Israel, moved to Malta in December with their three children.  They specifically asked to go to a country in which Chabad did not already have a presence.

“We wanted the challenge of coming to a place and starting from zero,” said Mushka.

They couldn’t have picked a more scenic location.  Malta is known for its beautiful harbors, walled-cities made of stone and 17th century fortresses perched high above the Mediterranean.  The country boasts    nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Not surprisingly,    it has become a popular tourist destination, particularly for northern Europeans.

Jews have lived on Malta since Roman times.  Historians believe the Jewish population on the island peaked at around 500 during the Middle Ages. Maltese Jews were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s; it’s believed many of them migrated to nearby Sicily.

Valletta Malta

 The picturesque harbor of Valletta, Malta

Currently, only about 100 Jews live year-round on this island of about 370,000 people, which became independent from the United Kingdom in 1964.

There is a small synagogue inside an apartment building in a suburb of Valletta called Ta’Xbiex.  But until the Segals arrived, there was no rabbi.  Leaders of the Jewish community had sent a letter to Chabad, asking the Lubavitch group to send a rabbi and establish a chapter.

“They felt they needed spiritual help to hold the Jewish community together,” said Rabbi Segal.  “Although it is not a very big community, there are a lot of youth here and they wanted our help in bringing Jewish education to their children.”

The Segals’ first order of business in December was to erect a large menorah near the Parliament building in Valletta.  Initially, the idea was met with trepidation by the local Jewish community, which had long preferred to keep a low profile on the island.

But after consulting with security officials in Israel, the Segals persuaded community leaders that putting up a menorah was the right move.

“It gave the message of light and unity,” said Rabbi Segal.

Public reaction to the menorah was better than even the Segals anticipated.  About 200 Maltese came the first night of Hanukkah, including the mayor of Valletta and other government officials. Coverage in the local news media was positive.

St. Paul's Bay Malta

The view of St. Paul’s Bay, directly across the street from the Chabad chapter

“It was very encouraging to the Jewish community to get such good feedback,” said Rabbi Segal.

Several weeks later, the Segals opened the Chabad center and kosher restaurant. L’Chaim, which is open Sunday through Thursday, imports glatt kosher food from Israel and Belgium.  Israeli schnitzel and french fries is the most popular item on the menu.

Word is still spreading around Malta of Chabad’s presence.  Friday night Shabbat services now average about 30 people, 95 percent of whom are tourists.  Of those, the Segals said about 90 percent are Israelis.  There are three charter flights a week from Israel that bring tourists to the island.  Most of the non-Israeli Jewish tourists come from Britain or France.

One of the highlights thus far of the Segals’ brief tenure in Malta was Passover, when 200 people attended seder at a ballroom in the Dolmen Hotel, which adjoins the facility Chabad is renting.

“I was excited and happy,” said Rabbi Segal of the turnout.  “But you’re never satisfied with what you have.  If you have 200, you want 400.”

They’ve only been on the island a few months, but the Segals already have plans for expansion.  Mushka, who was a teacher back in Israel, has started a ladies club and plans to open a Jewish school for the locals.  Rabbi Segal wants to begin offering Torah classes.  And eventually, they would like to move Chabad closer to Valletta, which is where most of the local Jews live and would also be more convenient for a larger percentage of tourists.

Rabbi Segal said he has been pleased with the reception Chabad has received from the local population.

“I like it here,” he said.  “People respect everyone, regardless of their religion.”

As for the distinction of Henry and me being the first Americans to enter Malta’s Chabad chapter, there was no fanfare.  But I did feel a sense of pride to learn that we were the first Jews from our country to visit a facility that is doing important work and has enjoyed such a promising beginning.

“You should feel honored,” Mushka said with a warm smile.

© 2013 Dan Fellner