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First Bar Mitzvah in Centuries in Balkan Nation

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Son of Montenegro emissaries to be joined by visitors from near and far

While locals in Montenegro speculate that with a checkered Jewish past going all the way back to the 12th century, there must have been bar mitzvah celebrations at some point in this Balkan country’s history, no one seems to remember anyone having had one in recent history.

Menachem Mendel Edelkopf, who will reach that milestone on Sept. 6, is going to change all that, just as his parents, the first Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries on Montenegrin soil, have begun changing much on the Jewish front since they arrived last year.

Credit: Google Maps

“There were probably no bar mitzvahs here for 170 to 180 years,” speculated Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, 40, who with his wife, Chani, and seven children landed in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica last August to build Jewish life pretty much from scratch in the former Socialist republic. “I doubt there was something like an organized bar mitzvah here in the past two centuries or so,” he told Chabad.org

To mark the occasion, Edelkopf and his wife—who he judiciously credits with all that has been accomplished thus far—will be throwing a gala affair at the local Hilton for Mendel, their oldest boy. A guest list of some 150, composed of friends and family from near and far, are expected to attend.

“We are new shluchim [emissaries] to Montenegro after 16 years in Sochi, Russia,” said Edelkopf. “There, I had the merit of arranging many bar mitzvahs for other children, for my spiritual children, but this is the first time my own son will be bar mitzvah. We want to make it special, and an example for all the Jews of Montenegro to see how through this beautiful and precious tradition a boy celebrates his becoming obligated in Torah and mitzvot.”

A Special Focus on Tefillin

Long before the Chabad-Lubavitch tefillin campaign was introduced, where Jews are inspired to don tefillin on public byways, in offices and in out-of-the-way places, the legendary Reb Yona Edelkopf—great-grandfather of Edelkopf and a chassid of the previous three Rebbes of Chabad—was known to have been involved in tefillin outreach.

To honor his memory, Edelkopf said that for the first half-hour of the bar mitzvah celebration, a stand will be set up at the entrance of the hall to provide the opportunity for anyone willing to don tefillin. It will also be staffed by an expert scribe who will demonstrate how phylacteries are made.

Edelkopf settled with his family in Podgorica, becoming what is believed to be the first resident rabbi of the community in more than 100 years in time for High Holiday services in 2017. He came at the request of Montenegro Jewish community activist and president, the late Jasa Alfandari, a spearhead of Jewish revival for many years in the Balkan region and an outspoken voice against anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Among his accomplishments was bringing as many as 500 Jewish leaders to Podgorica once a year from around the Balkan region to what he called the Machar (Hebrew for “tomorrow”) conference. Edelkopf said the annual event will continue in his memory.

Alfandari, who passed away suddenly in mid-July in his 70s, will be remembered and sorely missed at the bar mitzvah, where he had been scheduled to sit at the head table as “an honorary grandfather,” said Edelkopf.

Also at the request of Alfandari, the government gifted the Jewish community with land in central Podgorica several years ago to build a synagogue in a city where there was none. Construction is slated to start soon.

Until the synagogue’s completion, the Edelkopfs will continue to hold weekly prayer services, including Shabbat services and meals, classes and other events, in modest rented spaces. Larger events, such as High Holiday services, are held in rented halls and hotels for their clientele of locals and Jews visiting on business and leisure.

Checkered Jewish History

The Edelkopfs’ presence in Montenegro comes after an often-diffucult past for Jews in what was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, and then Serbia, and more recently a republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

From the 12th century until the mid-18th century, the small number of Jews in the region were treated relatively well, with many involved in the salt trade. The Serbs, who won their independence against the Turks in 1830, however were not friendly to the Jews. They instituted bans on the most basic of professions, eventually expelled the Jews from provincial towns, and made life difficult for those living in cities.

The Jewish population continually dwindled through the 19th century and never fully recovered, suffering further oppression and loss of identity as part of the Yugoslav Socialist regime, until its breakup in 1992. It wasn’t until 2006 that Montenegro would vote to cease its union with Serbia and declare its full independence.

Today, an estimated 500 Jews—largely unaffiliated and virtually devoid of Jewish practice from years of oppression and attack—make Montenegro home.

As a result, Edelkopf said he can’t count on a minyan (a public prayer quorum of 10 men) yet for Shabbat and weekday services or count on the fact that everyone even knows what a minyan is, but between visitors and locals, he said: “We will get there with G d’s help.”

By: Yehuda Sugar
(Chabad.org)

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