Total population: 7,606,000
Jewish population: 2,200
Nearly all of today’s Bulgarian Jews are Sephardim. Following the emigration of over 40,000 Jews to Israel after World War II and due to widespread assimilation, the elderly account for a disproportionately large share of the population. Most Jews live in Sofia but there are smaller communities in Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas and Ruse.
Sofia’s impressive synagogue
Archeological findings indicate the presence of Jews in what is today Bulgaria as far back as the Roman period. After the establishment of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681, a number of Jews persecuted in the Byzantine Empire are believed to have settled in Bulgaria. During the rule of Tsar Boris I, there may have been attempts to convert the pagan Bulgarians to Judaism, but in the 9th century the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was established and the population of the Bulgarian Empire was Christianized. The names of many members of the 10th- and 11th-century Comitopuli dynasty—such as Samuil, Moses, David—could indicate partial Jewish origin, most likely maternal, although this is disputed.
Later, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331–1371) married a Jewish woman, Sarah (renamed Theodora), who had converted to Christianity and had considerable influence in the court. A series of legends arose around Theodora, who is venerated in Bulgaria as a saint-like figure. Their son, Ivan Shishman, is also regarded as a great national hero. Nevertheless, a church council of 1352 led to the excommunication of “heretics,” and three Jews were sentenced to death and later killed by a mob, even though the tsar had lifted the convictions.
Until the arrival of Jewish refugees from Spain at the end of the 15th century, the majority of Jews living in Bulgaria followed the Romaniot (Byzantine) prayer rite.
By the time the Ottomans overran the Bulgarian Empire, there were sizable Jewish communities in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Plovdiv (Philippopolis) and Stara Zagora. Another wave of Ashkenazim, from Bavaria, arrived after being banished from that country in 1470. Yiddish could often be heard in Sofia according to contemporary travelers.
The first Sephardic immigration wave to Bulgarian commenced after 1494, with the newcomers settling in the already established centers of Jewish population. The modern capital, Sofia, had distinct communities of Romaniots, Ashkenazim and Sephardim until 1640, when a single rabbi was appointed for all three.
In the 17th century, the ideas of Sabbatai Zevi became popular in Bulgaria, with supporters of his movement, like Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, being active in Sofia. Jews continued to settle in various parts of the country, extending their economic activities due to the new rights extended to them.
In 1878, with Bulgaria having been liberated from Ottoman rule following the Russo–Turkish War, Jews were granted equal rights by the Treaty of Berlin. The rabbi of Sofia, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, together with three other Jews welcomed the Russian forces in the city and took part in the Constituent National Assembly of Bulgaria in 1879. However, signs of anti-Semitism and discrimination soon began to emerge.
Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian Army and participated in the Serbo–Bulgarian War in 1885. The Treaty of Neuilly following World War I emphasized their equality, yet anti-Semitism began to spread and was indirectly promoted by the governments of the time.
On the eve of the Shoah, nearly 50,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria, half of them in Sofia.
In 1941, the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law on the Protection of the Nation, which introduced numerous legal restrictions on Jews. Specifically, it prohibited them from voting, running for office, working in government positions, serving in the army, marrying or cohabitating with ethnic Bulgarians, using Bulgarian names, or owning rural land. Jewish leaders were not alone in protesting against the law; the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Workers’ Party officials, twenty-one writers, and professional organizations also opposed it.
Bulgarian Jews were saved from deportation to the German death camps largely due to the energetic intervention of non-Jewish Bulgarians, including the clergy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the king. The Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia, however, were stripped of their property and deported by the Bulgarians to German death camps. In the years immediately following the war, about 90 percent of Bulgarian Jewry emigrated to Israel.
Bulgarian Jews are represented by the organization Shalom, which is the successor to the Social and Cultural Organization of Jews in Bulgaria. Shalom is an umbrella organization for the Jewish communities in the country. Its main goals are to uphold Jewish traditions and values, to guarantee the rights of its members and all the Jews in the country; to prevent all forms of racism and anti-Semitism and to preserve historical monuments such as synagogues and cemeteries.
Shalom—Organization of Jews in Bulgaria
Al. Stamboliisky 50
Tel: +359 2 4006 301
Fax: +359 2 9811 139
Since 1948, 43,000 Bulgarian Jews have emigrated to Israel, 38,000 of them in the period between July 1948 and May 1949.
Embassy of Israel in Bulgaria
1 Bulgaria Square
Tel: +359 2 543 201
Fax: +359 2 521 101
Kosher food is not widely available, but kosher wine and matzot are imported.
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database
Since 2009, Bulgaria has had a resident rabbi. Adjacent to the synagogue in Sofia is a small museum dedicated to the history of the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry during World War II.
The level of religious observance in Bulgaria is low, and many Bulgarian Jews come from mixed marriages. Most Bulgarian Jews identify themselves in a national-ethnic rather than a religious context.
There is a Jewish old-age home in Sofia and a kitchen that provides kosher food for elderly people.
The community organizes summer camps for children, seminars about Judaism as well as Jewish songs and dances. There are programs especially for students, young adults, middle-aged people and for seniors. Some events cater especially to families.
Chabad operates facilities in Sofia, Sunny Beach and Varna.
There are only two functioning synagogues in Bulgaria, in Sofia and Plovdiv. Services are held on Shabbat, but most Jews only congregate on important Jewish holidays.
The synagogue in Sofia celebrated of its 100th anniversary in 2009 in the presence of Bulgaria’s president and many Jewish leaders from Europe. The neo-Byzantine shul is one of the largest Sephardic buildings in the world and among the largest synagogues in Europe.
There is a Jewish kindergarten and a Jewish school, where Jews and non-Jews can study Hebrew and Jewish culture. For children, there is also a special 4-year program with classes once per week where educators teach them about Jewish history and holidays.It is often remarked that in Bulgaria, children have had a better Jewish education and know more about Judaism than their parents, who grew up under Communism.
Jewish teenagers in Bulgaria can participate in the activities of the local chapters of international movements such as BBYO and Hashomer Hatzair.