Montenegro, Set Deep in the Balkans, Gets Its First Rabbi in a Century

Chabad couple hits the ground running, tapping into the momentum of Jewish activity

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the resurgent Montenegrin Jewish community is the annual Machar conference, which brings together more than 500 representatives from 17 Jewish communities throughout the Balkans. The conference is spearheaded by Alfandari, right, a recognized expert on combating anti-Semitism and a respected voice in European Jewish leadership

Montenegro has no synagogue, but that’s about to change.

The government gifted the Jewish community with land in central Podgorica several years ago, and construction is slated to start soon. Yet the community isn’t waiting for the synagogue to be built before it hires a rabbi; last month, in news that received national coverage, it appointed Chabad Rabbi Ari Edelkopf as the first resident rabbi in Montenegro in more than 100 years.

Edelkopf’s arrival in the country as its first permanent Chabad emissary was formally announced on Sunday evening at the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim) in New York

The rabbi and his wife, Chani, and their seven children, previously served as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Sochi, Russia, where they were successful in building a community and fostering Jewish life. There, the rabbi gained a visceral understanding of the unique challenges facing Jewish communities that previously lived under Soviet and Communist regimes.

“They were robbed of their Jewish heritage,” says Edelkopf. “They know they are Jewish, but do not know what that means. Any attempt to build Jewish life has to be on the basis that people are far more assimilated than anywhere else. Even basic things, like circumcision, bar mitzvahs, a kosher cemetery—these don’t exist.”

Edelkopf believes that his time in Sochi—where he played a central role providing Jewish services and programming during the 2014 Winter Olympics—positioned him well for his role in Montenegro, where Jewish life was similarly sapped by Communist rule. While that’s the problem, what’s the cure?

Today, the Jewish population is a mixture of those of Ashkenazic and Sephardic heritage.

“Lots of patience, lots of sensitivity and lots of love,” replies Edelkopf.

The couple took up their post at the invitation of the Montenegro Jewish community only a few weeks ago, but dove right into local life. They’re taking intensive Montenegrin language lessons, and have been warmly embraced by both politicians and locals in the street, who beep their horns and wave when they spot the bearded rabbi and his large family.

The Edelkopfs have opened the door to their new home in this Balkan country marked by rugged mountains, hosting Shabbatmeals for the mix of locals and Jews that business and travel blow in from across the world. Services are being held in their home and at the premises of the Jewish community until the synagogue is ready, with the recent Yom Kippur service thought to be the first in decades. The sukkah the Edelkopfs built and shared with the community was the first many had ever seen.

Peace in a Time of Turmoil

Oddly enough, it is a cemetery that best tells the story of Jewish life in Montenegro. It is a story that is largely unknown; not many people tell it, and even fewer seek it out.

The cemetery is in Kotor, a town tucked into the crook of Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. (Montenegro is bordered by Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia to the north; Kosovo to the east; and Albania to the south.) The Jewish section granted by the government in the late 19th century can be found near the entrance—a prestigious position and subtle affirmation of Montenegro’s philosemitism. Ever since the cemetery opened in 1880, local authorities have been preserving and protecting the cemetery; elsewhere in Europe, cemeteries were defiled and destroyed.

According to Jasa Alfandari, president of the Montenegro community, the cemetery is emblematic of the peace and goodwill that has long flowed between the Jews and non-Jews of Montenegro, who are majority Orthodox Christian with a large Muslim minority. In a region that has become synonymous with conflict and ethnic volatility, Montenegro’s Jews have long lived peacefully alongside their neighbors in the capital of Podgorica and towns along the mountainous coast. The Jewish population of Montenegro increased from 1939 to 1945, the flames of the Holocaust only licking its rugged shores.

Modern-day Montenegro is barely a decade old, but Jews have been living there from at least the Middle Ages. The Jews saw victors come and go, and watched as Montenegro became Serbian, then Ottoman, and then tossed and turned in the tempest of Yugoslavia until it was left to fend for itself in the new world of independence.

Today, the Jewish population is a mixture of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic heritage. The Communist pall still lingers and shapes the community; decades of fierce of anti-religious policy have produced a deeply assimilated Jewish population, where intermarriage rates are above 90 percent, and Jewish education are almost non-existent.

Experiencing a Jewish Revival

Alfandari and other Jewish leaders have been working to address that.

Soon after independence, they registered the community, and secured government recognition and funding. They also joined peak Jewish bodies like the World Jewish Congress and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. In addition to Jewish holiday events, they’ve built a massive Jewish library with many titles in Montenegrin, which they use to educate and inform the wider public. The community also publishes Almana, a Jewish literary journal with a readership that reaches well across religious lines.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the resurgent Montenegrin Jewish community is the annual Machar conference, which brings together more than 500 representatives from 17 Jewish communities across the Balkans. The conference is spearheaded by Alfandari, a recognized expert on combating anti-Semitism and a respected voice in European Jewish leadership.

The Edelkopfs have their work cut out for them, but they remain undaunted. Even the relatively small size of the community (between 400 and 500 at last count) doesn’t faze them. The rabbi reckons that the revival of the Jewish community is drawing Jews out of the woodwork—individuals who for years eschewed any contact or involvement in Jewish life.

He notes with excitement a recent encounter with a local woman whose ancestors were originally from Russia. “I asked her name. She said her grandparents were Kogan. That’s a Jewish name. So we looked into it, and I was able to tell her—60 years into her life—that she is a Jew!”

The Jewish revival comes at a time when the country is experiencing rapid growth and gaining popularity as a tourist destination. Montenegro is a bewitching fusion of an ancient past and the optimism of a bright future. Edelkopf and the community he now ministers feel similarly: that they are writing another chapter in the long story of Montenegro Jewry, with words that strike a new note of confidence and hope.

By: Shmuel Loebenstein


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