When I decided to take a gap year before going to college and come to Serbia, I was worried about many things, but mostly about how to maintain my Jewish identity without the camp, NFTY, and temple communities as immediate support. As a Bonim (3rd through 5th grade) counselor this past summer, I relished each moment that I was surrounded by the Eisner community – the interactive services, the supportive environment, and the opportunity to live Jewishly 24/7. Eisner is the community that nurtured me and helped me grow into the Jew—and person—that I am. Coming to Serbia was a test of whether or not that person could flourish without the constant support that I had for my eight summers at Eisner and 18 years at Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts. In a country with fewer than 2,000 Jews total, I knew that I would not have the same experience here.
Four weeks into my nine months in Serbia, I realized that this was the longest I had gone without going to camp, a NFTY event, or temple. Judaism was an integral part of my upbringing, and I was struggling without the constant interaction with the Jewish world. Although there is a synagogue in Novi Sad, the city where I am living for the first four months, the active community is so small that weekly services are not possible. The space is rented out as a concert venue to bring in funds but, as a result, there is no place for Shabbat services. However, with Rosh Hashanah coming up, I knew that I needed to establish a connection with the Jewish community and get involved in whatever way I could.
Through my boss at work, I was connected with Marko Fisher, an Israeli-Serb fluent in Serbian, English, and Hebrew (Marko is fairly certain that he is the only Israeli-Serb in Novi Sad, and maybe even in all of Serbia.) Marko took me around the Jewish sector on Erev Rosh Hashanah and explained more about how the community functions. Then, braced with the caveat that services would be more a display of Serbian culture than a familiar religious experience, I entered the synagogue.
About 40 congregants were scattered around the space that could hold hundreds. Boys sat on the right and girls on the left. As I took my place in an empty row, I scanned the pew for a prayer book, only to discover a few ticket stubs from a recent concert. There were no prayer books to be found. The man leading the service entered (I later found out that he was not a rabbi, since there is only one rabbi in Serbia and he lives in Belgrade) and began praying just loud enough that I could hear him. For 40 minutes, he prayed and bowed, and I watched. The congregation was not involved in the service whatsoever. As he sang the familiar tune of Adon Olam to close the service, I had to resist the urge to join in. And then the service was over, and a few whispers of ˝Srećna nova godina˝ or ˝Happy new year˝ were exchanged. Then, Marko brought me to the building next door where the Oneg was taking place and, for the first time in the evening, I found something that reminded me of home: apples, honey, and challah with raisins.
Over the course of the next three hours, I began to find my place in the community. I talked to the leader of the youth group and hung out with some of the younger congregants who painted a better picture of how the community works. They may not have services every week, but the social community is very strong. In fact, many people who were not at the service came for Oneg to converse with their friends. So maybe I won´t be singing ˝Or Zarua˝ and ˝Ken Y´hi Ratzon˝ every Friday night, but I have the chance to build cross-cultural relationships with Serbians of a common heritage. It´s no song session and Israeli dance, but I´ll take it.
So, what did I learn from my Rosh Hashanah experience? Clearly, my interaction with the Jewish community in Novi Sad was different from the interactive, English-speaking community where I grew up, but this difference is not bad. While here, I have the opportunity to explore a religious community infused with Serbian culture and to really strengthen my Jewish independence. For example, just last week I went to the synagogue for a lecture by the rabbi from Belgrade. Granted, it was in Serbian and I only understood the basics, but it was really gratifying to understand a sentence about being inscribed in the book of life and to hear him ask what olam meant in Serbian and to answer svet, or world. I am beginning to see what Jewish ideas and traditions are universal as opposed to the aspects that are influenced by national culture. Beyond the local community, I can stay connected with the camp world by obsessively checking the website and counting down the days until Summer 2012. I can read my rabbis´ sermons online and listen to my favorite Jewish songs on my iPod. It definitely is a challenge being Jewish here, but it is a challenge that is forcing me to grow and redefine what my Judaism means. So, as I begin 5772, I am choosing to accept and embrace that challenge. This could very well be the most formative year for my Jewish identity, and I am excited for the cultural and religious connections that I will continue to make. L´shanah tovah from Serbia!
Charlotte Sall is a long time Eisner camper and staff member currently spending a gap year in Serbia working with underprivileged youth.