Belgrade: With some 3,300 Jews, Serbia, now unified with neighboring Montenegro, has one of the smallest Jewish communities in Europe.
Like the other once-communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Serbia has experienced an increase in Jewish life since communism fell a decade ago, with a growing number of Jews affiliating with the organized Jewish community and returning to Jewish traditions.
Like many of the continent’s now autonomous Jewish communities, Serbia is working to introduce Western-style democracy and openness into a community structure that was led for decades by a small clique.
But the Jewish community experienced an exodus of a few hundred young members, often the most active people, during the NATO military campaign against President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Most went to Israel or Canada and have not come back.
And the Jewish community, like the rest of the land, still has not recovered from the international economic sanctions that were leveraged to drive Milosevic from office.
"The problem of poverty exists. The problem of anti-Semitism exists," says Mirko Levi, president of the Belgrade Jewish Community, the largest in Serbia.
The community, mostly middle-class professionals and merchants, includes several hundred destitute Holocaust survivors. "We are all poor," Levi says.
"We share the same destiny as all the people here," as citizens of probably the worst-off of the former Yugoslavia’s now independent republics, says Aleksandar Gaon, editor of the monthly Jewish community bulletin.
Serbia’s mostly Sephardic community receives the majority of its funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and from London-based World Jewish Relief. The JDC runs leadership training seminars, underwrites the studies of a Serbian rabbinical student at Budapest’s Rabbinical Seminary, and supports nondenominational medical clinics and soup kitchens.
Unlike some Jewish communities in the region, Serbia’s has not experienced the return of income-producing Jewish properties that were seized during the times of Nazism and communism. A bill to return the properties is now before the parliament.
Serbia also lacks well-known historic sites or legends to attract Jewish tourists.
"There’s no Golem story, like in Prague," says Isak Asiel, chief rabbi of Serbia and Montenegro.
The legend of the 18th-century man made from earth that protected Prague Jews has become an unofficial symbol of the capital of the Czech Republic, and sales of Golem books and figurines and other tchachkes are a boon to the city’s economy.
And unlike some nearby Jewish communities, Serbia’s has few of the "hidden Jews" who appeared after communism fell. During the long reign in Yugoslavia of Marshall Tito, Jews were not penalized for publicly identifying their religious/ethnic identity.
But Yugoslavia Jewry was among the major victims of the Holocaust. Ninety percent of the largely secular community was killed in the Final Solution.
Despite today’s problems, there are signs of an increasingly vibrant Jewish life in Belgrade, which has some 2,000 Jews, and nine other Serbian cities.
There is a popular Israeli folk-dancing group and a Jewish choir, youth clubs and concerts, ongoing lectures at the Jewish community building in Belgrade and classes on introductory Judaism by the Serbian-born Rabbi Asiel.
Trained in Israel as a scribe and ritual slaughterer, he has seen the number of kosher-observant Jewish families in the largely secular community rise from zero to 16.
"There is much more orientation to tradition and religion," Levi says. "Last year we celebrated Shavuos for the first time in the community."
Rabbi Asiel is coordinating renovations at Belgrade’s 77-year-old synagogue. With financial help from New York philanthropist Steve Rosenberg and the Claims Conference, the building, when additions are finished this summer, will include an all-purpose hall, kosher meat and dairy kitchens, and a mikveh.
Showing a visitor the gutted basement of the synagogue, Rabbi Asiel talks of hosting social events and Shabbaton activities for participants who must walk through the heart of the city to the Jewish community building.
In addition, the rabbi through the JDC is trying to raise $35,000 for a new heating system for the synagogue. During chilly Passover services last month, a pair of space heaters stood next to the bima.