Five area teens from the Keystone Mountain Region of BBYO recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria, where they learned about Jewish life in the former communist country, and performed a variety of community service projects.
Regional president Rebecca Lerman, Hannah Frank, Abby Neft and Emily Gorby left Pittsburgh for Bulgaria June 25. They spent 10 days there, joined by 74 other teens from BBYO chapters from across the United States, Canada, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Latvia, Israel, Serbia and Bulgaria.
The group then traveled to Israel, where it spent three weeks touring the Jewish state. Another Pittsburgh teen, Leah Marcone, joined the group in Israel.
“Going to Bulgaria was a unique opportunity, so I wanted to take advantage of it,” said Lerman, a senior at the Ellis School. She noted that it was the community service aspect of the trip that appealed to her.
Some of the highlights of the trip, according to Lerman, were visiting with Bulgarian Holocaust survivors, and tending to graves in a neglected Jewish cemetery.
“The cemetery was pretty run down,” said Frank, a senior at Woodland Hills High School, who also chose the trip to Bulgaria because of its community service component. “It was beautiful, but it was not in the best condition. We picked up leaves and swept and hacked ivy off the graves.”
The “most meaningful” day of the trip, Frank said, was the day when young orphans came to the group’s hotel to visit and play.
“They don’t leave the orphanage all year,” she said. “They are malnourished. They came to us and ate real food and we played catch with them, and treated them how they deserved to be treated.”
The BBYO group brought donated toys and clothing to Bulgaria for the orphans, as well as several suitcases filled with Judaica for the Jews there, who have no access to things such as kipot, tefillin, menoras and Chanuka candles.
Seeing what Judaism is like in a former communist country was eye opening for the group, Lerman said.
“Our Judaism and theirs is so completely different,” she said. “They are less practicing. They don’t really go to shul, and they can’t even buy Chanuka candles. There are synagogues in Bulgaria, but it is hard for them to make a minyan.”
Organizations such as BBYO help to teach the younger generation of Bulgarian Jews about their heritage, and they, in turn teach their parents and grandparents, according to Frank.
“Once the kids join BBYO, they learn a lot about Judaism,” she said.
Nineteen Jewish Bulgarian teens accompanied the group on its tour of the country.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)