TBA Trip to the Balkans Blog

Thursday, May 4 RAK
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Thursday, Kyustendil, Bulgaria,

This is a follow-up from my post yesterday, and what I learned about the relationship between the saving of the Bulgarian Jewish community and basically the concomitant sacrificing of the Macedonian Jewish community. I thought, after yesterday, my essential learning about this topic was complete.

I was wrong.

We ended up putting Kyustendil, Bulgaria, on our itinerary for mostly logistical reasons. Rather than end the trip in Skopje, North Macedonia we decided to make the long drive back to Sofia, Bulgaria, as that airport offered more flights back to the States. But once we made that decision, our tour operator told us that on that route we would pass through Kyustendil, which happens to have a museum dedicated to the life, work and legacy of Dimitar Peshev.

Who was Dimitar Peshev? Think Oskar Schindler. Times 50!

He was a member of the Bulgarian Parliament. From the town of Kyustendil. He had many friends among Kyustendil’s Jewish community. Some of these details remain fuzzy for me, even after visiting this museum, but the essence seems to be that some of Kyustendil’s Jews had gotten word about the deportation of Macedonia’s Jews to Treblinka, and that “true” Bulgarian Jews were next. There were even rail cars lining up at the Kyustendil train station to prepare for this transport. Several local Jews pleaded with Peshev, along with other local officials with contacts in the Jewish community, to go to Sofia to petition that the Jews be saved. To make a long, and fraught, and life-threatening and almost unbelievable story short, 43 Bulgarian government officials, led by Peshev’s urging, signed a letter directed towards Tsar Boris and the Bulgarian PM, Bogdan Filov, asking/pleading/demanding that Bulgaria’s Jews be saved.

(It is still unclear to me whether Macedonian Jews were the actual, negotiated “sacrifice” for the saving of Bulgaria’s Jews, or whether it was simply too late to save Macedonia’s Jews. As the plan that began in Kyustendil to save Bulgaria’s Jews was launched after the fate of Macedonia’s Jews was saved).

Tsar Boris and PM Filov relented. Nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. Peshev truly is Oskar Schindler x 50.

And he, and his fellow urgers and signers, paid heavily. Once WWII was over, and the Soviet-affiliated communists led Bulgaria, the group of 43 were accused, in the epitome of ridiculous irony, of antisemitism, among other things. 20 were sentenced to death and executed. They lost their lives because of their successful attempt to save Jewish lives. Peshev was sentenced to many years in prison, but was released after one year. Nevertheless, his successful, notable, wealthy pre-war life was over, and would not return.

It took decades for Yad Vashem in Israel to recognize his heroism. He is now named among the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem. And it took decades more for Bulgaria itself to celebrate him and his courage, and his unique role in saving Bulgaria’s Jews.

Had we not changed the itinerary in order to have more convenient flights home, our trip would have ended in Skopje. We never would have heard of Kyustendil, let alone have gone to this museum and learned about Peshev (and, of course, we never would have eaten a 5-course meal at a F~R~I~E~N~D~S-themed café there!). It is always amazing to consider that, no matter how much one knows, or thinks one knows, about any topic, the next jaw-dropping, paradigm-shifting piece of insight may be right around the corner, waiting to be uncovered.

I will now try to share the story of Dimitar Peshev when I can, and help spread and grow his incredible legacy. He is, nearly single-handedly, and at great personal distress and peril, responsible for saving an incredible number of Jews during the Shoah. יהי זכרו ברוך.  Yehi zikhro barukh. May his memory be a blessing.

(oh…and apparently he was an expert backgammon player. You can always trust a shesh-besh-er!)

Thursday, May 4
Barbara Breger

Thursday, May 4

Barbara Breger

Tonight we had our goodbye banquet.  We have been TBAers, people from Rabbi Kligfeld’s former shul in Monroe, NY, a pair of former TBAers and a Texan.  We started out knowing our own group and we became a really nice single group of people who enjoyed each other.  We were all here to see an area of our world that we would most likely never have done without this TBA trip.  We learned so much about Jews who once lived in Bulgaria, Northern Greece and Macedonia (which the map shows as North Macedonia the inhabitants call Macedonia,) We saw shuls which have been active in the past but are now quiet due to the holocaust.  We saw a couple of active shuls.  We saw an amazing holocaust museum in Macedonia that TBAs own Rabbi Dr Michael Berenbaum was the guiding light for bringing it to fruition.  Today we saw a small museum in Bulgaria that honored 5 Bulgarian righteous gentiles.  We learned about the originators of the Cyrillic alphabet which is used in many of the Balkan countries as well as Russia.  We came to understand that the Christian Orthodox churches are the main religion and most countries’ Orthodox church is slightly different from the one in the next country.  We saw some amazing Roman ruins and learned a lot of the ancient history of these countries.

Overall we had valuable learning about areas we did not know a lot about before 11 days ago.  We all agreed that we woulike to see more of the Balkan countries in the future. We appreciate our fearless rabbi leaders who added so much to our trip.

We say goodbye to this part of the Balkans with more knowledge than we probably expected and we say goodbye to old and new friends.

Wednesday, May 3 RAK
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Wednesday, Skopje, North Macedonia

We are finishing the penultimate day of this epic trip to the Balkans, and each day the learning is immense and unexpected and deep.

I consider myself, with no false humility, to be rather educated about the (hi)story of European Jewry and the Shoah. I learned a sub-story today that I never learned before.


Those who know some Shoah history can tick off a list of those countries who saved a meaningful # of their Jews. Usually people name 3 (and ½) such countries. Denmark. Morocco. Bulgaria (and some portion of Albania’s Jews). In each situation, it is understood that the reigning monarch essentially refused to capitulate to Hitler, and thus nearly the full Jewish population was spared.


I remember when I visited Sofia, Bulgaria, the first time (in 2016), the local guide on our generic walking tour proudly touted Tsar Boris’s role in saving Bulgarian Jewry. Even then, however, there seemed to be a lingering asterisk that wasn’t being explored fully. I did some reading in the aftermath, but clearly not enough to understand the full story.


Our TBA trip to the Balkans began in Sofia, with similar talking points about Tsar Boris and his being a savior of Bulgarian Jewry. With similar hovering asterisks.


Today we made it to Skopje, the capital of (North) Macedonia, and visited the truly exceptional and unexpected museum that tells the rich story of Macedonian/Balkan Jewish history, and then its terrifying and catastrophic end. What we learned gave context to that lingering asterisk. Of course the fully story cannot be told in a FB post, but essentially the story told here is that the cost of the saving of the lives of Bulgaria’s Jews was the near total sacrifice of Macedonian Jews.


Tsar Boris and his Bulgarian troops occupied this area of Macedonia, essentially in the name of, or in partnership with, Hitler and the Nazi forces. In exchange for saving the “true” Bulgarian Jews, Tsar Boris offered up nearly every single Jew living in then-occupied Skopje, and Bitola (which was once called Monastir, and was home to centuries of rich Jewish and rabbinic life), and Stip. Because of the nearly entire annihilation of Macedonian Jews, the names of those cities—as Jewish cities—barely register in the minds even of educated Jews.


The Bulgarians kept impeccable records. 7144 Macedonian Jews were rounded up in what had been a tobacco plant called Monopol in Skopje. In 3 separate cattle-car transports, all were deported to Treblinka. How many of those 7144 survived? Not a single one.

About 150 Macedonian Jews survived by never having been rounded up, either because they were hidden children (such as this gentleman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichak_Adizes), because they were physicians who were held back to help with the war effort, or because they were fortunate enough to also have a separate national identity that gave them papers with which to flee.

Thus 98% of Macedonian’s Jews were murdered. And essentially as the price for the lives of the Jews living inside Bulgaria proper.


If you are a descendant of a saved Bulgarian Jew, Tsar Boris is a savior, a hero. Every life saved has infinite value, and the generations that emerge from each saved life will be incomprehensible. And if you are a descendant of one of the exceedingly few Macedonian Jews to survive, Tsar Boris is a deal-maker with the devil, who consigned your community to extermination.


I share all of this not to levy judgment on Tsar Boris. Doing so, with clarity, with such retrospect, is nigh impossible, and on this sub-story I remain a novice. (Though Yad Vashem did indeed levy harsh judgment, sending back to Bulgaria stones that Bulgaria intended to celebrate Tsar Boris as part of the Path of the Righteous Gentiles. See pics below). But learning this helps bring full circle my previous immersions into the story of Bulgarian Jewry, and brings this trip truly (and clock-wise-ly!) full-circle as we return to Sofia (via the Bulgarian town of Kyustendil, which apparently has a museum devoted to a local governor, Dimitar Peshev, who apparently also was instrumental in saving local Jews) for our final night before ending this remarkable adventure.


At the end of the day we met with two board members of the tiny, nascent reconstructed Macedonian Jewish community. Maya and Alexandra. Against inconceivable odds, they are trying to coax a little Jewish life back into this city. The parokhet/curtain on the ark in their small “sanctuary,” part of a Jewish community mini-campus tucked into a nondescript building within a nondescript neighborhood, was dedicated by some family in Kislev/December 1938, with no sense that the entire community’s demise was nigh. We davened/prayed מנחה, the afternoon service. We sang a מישברך/misheberakh prayer for the wife of Goran Sadikario, a Macedonian Jew, who is the CEO of and was our personal guide at the Museum, who was undergoing eye surgery during the very hours we were there (and yet still Goran chose to spend the afternoon with us while his wife was in surgery). We said an אל מלא/el maleh memorial prayer for all the Macedonian Jews who perished. And we sang oseh shalom, bringing a little Hebrew and music and רוח/ruach/spirit back to this city, eliciting tears from Maya and Alexandra and many of us.


They do not have a rabbi. They count 200 people in their extended Skopje Jewish community, of which they guess 60 are actual Jews (they count the many non-Jewish spouses and even supportive friends as part of their community). They have no access to Kosher food. They have no teachers who know enough to teach the next generation of children. And still they persevere, trying to build a sukkah on Sukkot, organizing some version of a seder on Pesah, importing a rabbi and/or cantor for important moments (and even, apparently, having a room/office for them, as you can see from the pics!). We just met them today, and they felt immediately like family.


Do we know what life holds for the Jewish communities we hold so dear? I do not fear that another Holocaust, God-forbid, is around the corner. And yet the Jews of Skopje did not feel they were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic when they were dedicating new ark-curtains in 1938. They were living rich and fulfilled Jewish lives, assuming the past would augur the future.


Enemies of the Jews are real. Very little is constant. Except, perhaps, for the Jewish drive to remain, to endure, to persist.

The main artistic installation at the Skopje museum is hard to describe in words. You sort of notice it from the main floor, but it is not until you get to the 2nd floor that it opens up to you. It is made of over 7000 thin, lighted rods, each one different than the other, representing the over 7000 unique Macedonian Jews to perish. The coloration of the rods creates ephemeral, almost ghostly words, reminding us to “remember” in Hebrew, English and Macedonian. And in the center, once you focus on it, you see an orange-red flame, alit but not consumed, representing the ever-living spirit of this ever-dying people. Amen.


May the memories of the Macedonian Jews be for a blessing. יהי זכרם ברוך. Yehi zikhram barukh. And may our lives—luckier and more fortunate than we deserve them to be—be lived with purpose, and with pride.

Wednesday, May 3
Bobby Ring

Wednesday May 3rd

By Bobby Ring

As we travel from Orhid to Scopje, we again are engulfed by lush green mountains and fields.There are apple orchards and homes with Spanish/Roman red tile roofs.

We have also seen coal and copper mining on the beautiful hills. They do need power.  Still, they use a lot of firewood as electricity is expensive. 

As we arrive in Scopje, one of the many claimed homes of Alexander the Great, there is the largest statue of him in the area.

We had lunch at the Turkish bizarre, mingled with some of the local tourists, and then went to the Holocaust Memorial Center for Jews of Macedonia.

This museum which in large part was designed and implemented by our Michael Berenbaum, reveals a direct and moving story of what happened to the Jews of Macedonia in the second World War. We came to appreciate that the simple version that the Bulgarian Jews were all saved by their good King Boris is not all correct and the issues are far more nuanced.

There were moving artifacts of Jewish life including pictures of those who were murdered and a train car ww went in typical of the type used to take the Jews away. Our guide was a Sephardic  Jew from Scopje who told moving personal stories.

We next went to the shul in Macedonia which is barely supported by a community of about 200 of which 65 are Jews. Jews have been in this area since Roman times. There are mixed marriages between members of the community: orthodox (meaning eastern Christian orthodox) and Jewish. Who knew! Our  mincha service and singing invigorated this remnant Jewish community with ruach from the new world.

The evening wrapped up at the double tree Hilton with games and a tasty dinner after an exhausting and rewarding day.



Tuesday, May 2
Eric Ossentjuk

Tuesday, May 2

Full day in Ohrid; these two night stops are most appreciated. Started with a tour of the city, which was preceded by a walk along the shores of vast Lake Ochrid. Saw several churches from various eras and views of Lake Ohrid at every turn. Walking skinny, steep cobblestone streets while sharing them with cars and motorcycles was challenging but the group made it to the 11th century church of St. Sofia in order for Rabbi Kligfeld and the rest of us to “check out” the famed acoustics, which responded as advertised. 

Then it was up the hill again, with all or most finally reaching the venerated church of Holy Mary Peryvleptos. The group reaching this point included Stuart, who arrived with a cigar defiantly clenched between his teeth as he climbed the last hill to the church, conjuring images of McArthur returning to the Philippines (maybe with McArthur it was a pipe instead of a cigar and maybe it wasn’t in his teeth when he actually returned, but the analogy is the best I can do at 6am writing on my phone by the bathroom light so as not to wake my wife). 

The inside of the church is covered in images from Christianity and one can actually see the Middle Ages start to end and the Renaissance begin as the images shift from the strict iconography displayed in the first churches we visited to the more realistic depictions of humans here. It is amazing that these beautiful, detailed images were covered in soot for many years and had to be uncovered meticulously to once again be visible. It is also amazing that our guide Vlad, with his encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly each and every image and the details of same (as he does with all things North Macedonian), can field almost any question thrown his way. 

Then it was back down the hill for lunch. Some ventured on to the summit where the views from Samoil’s Fortress were worth the added effort. Others shopped for jewelry which caught their eye on the way up. With Macedonian rubies and Lake Ohrid pearls being the most sought after. 

A cruise on the lake followed lunch, affording some close up views of the coastline we’d been photographing from afar, despite on and off rain showers. Then back to the hotel for R&R for some, spas for a few and self organized rakija tasting tours for some others (I think Jared tried them all). Followed by dinner and some dancing,  likely one of the few times the Hora was danced on the shores of Lake Ohrid in many years. Then bed -  for this writer a rainy stroll along the promenade to once again take in the legendary North Macedonian nightlife, hey how often do you get to Ohrid?


Monday, May 1st
Sonia & Michael Rubin

Monday, May 1st

…after a fun night of ouzo and a game of “celebrity”, we started the day with ‘“modeh ani” in front of the Emerald Suites and Spa.  

Krissy guided us on a walking tour of Jewish Florina. We strolled along the Tsakouleves River where yet again a thriving Jewish community had disappeared. The area is still referred to as the “Havra”, although no one seems to know why. Havra was the  name of the synagogue that once was the center of Jewish life in city. The Jews of Florina came from Bitola in the 1600s after a cholera epidemic.  They were poor, but the Greeks were still jealous and suspicious of them, since they didnt speak greek and had different customs.  When the Jews were deported to Thesseloniki, the Greeks took their homes and belongings. 

The morning May Day holiday left the streets empty and shops closed and we could really feel the loss.

Ironically, the May Day “communist” parade passed through the streets of downtown Florina as we enjoyed some refreshments in the cafes and awaited the bus. Bobby participated a bit and got some insights into how the locals felt about it. Vlady confessed that the workers in his home town of Ohrid are too lazy to march and prefer to have bbqs in the park and enjoy the day off.

After crossing the border into North Macedonia, we stopped in Hereclea, the ancient city built by Phillip II of Macedonia   in 379 bce or thereabouts. Phillip was the father of Alexander the Great! Herculea flourished for about 1000 years until it was destroyed by an earthquake along with many other cities.  Vlady,  our new tour guide through Macedonia, joined us here and gave a good history of the area, which is long and complicated, so look it up :) if you’re interested. We davened mincha in the theater with a sense of pride that we have survived all the the antisemitism of these various civilizations and headed off to lake Presba, a gorgeous lake bordering Albania, Greece and Macedonia. What a stunning place! On the other side of the mountain is Lake Ohrid. We will stay here for two nights and get to know its story. 

The beauty of the area and the apparent simplicity and gentleness of life here seems juxtaposed to its turbulent history!


Sunday, April 30
Deborah Chariton

Sunday April 30

Good mooooorning, Thessaloniki!  It’s Marathon Day!  Some of us were up very early to take a last (early morning) walk along the waterfront.  Others slept in until close to the last moment because they had a little too much fun enjoying locally produced adult beverages after last night’s festive Havdalah service. 

After a sumptuous breakfast on the 7th floor terrace of the ideally-situated Electra Palace Hotel, we gathered in the lobby to await the arrival of our bus.  Alas, due to the marathon street closures, the bus could not pull up in front of our hotel.  Instead, we dragged (or charmed others into dragging) our luggage to the next block and across a busy street, where our travel agent, Mata, had made special arrangements with the police to park in a no-parking-on-Marathon-Day zone.  Mata is our official TBA Balkans Trip Problem-Solver!

What came next was a scene straight out of L.A. STORY:  We boarded the bus to drive the five blocks to get to our first stop:  The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.  As we approached the museum, our guide pointed out train tracks embedded in the middle of the road in front of the museum.  They were installed in memory of the Jews from Thessaloniki who were deported.  As we entered the museum, I could not help but notice the security guard stationed to the left of the building, and the graffiti on the building to the right.  The museum is housed in what was once a commercial arcade that survived the fire of 1917, which wiped out two thirds of the city.

We were given a guided tour of the museum, which is small but on two floors, and very comprehensive.  The entryway contains old gravestones from the cemetery which at one time held over 500,000 graves.  It was destroyed by the Nazis, and the Greeks ground up the tombstones and used them to pave their streets. 

We then walked into a room which contained the names of 30,000 people from Thessaloniki who were killed in the Holocaust.  It is missing the names of about 20,000 people who could not be identified, as entire family lines were wiped out.  Of the 50,000 people who were killed, about 2,000 were children under 16.  57 survived because they were hidden.  The Thessaloniki Jewish community was particularly devastated by the Holocaust.  96% of the Jewish population was killed.

The rest of the museum traces the timeline and history of the Jewish presence in Thessaloniki, which dates back to about 140 BCE.  The Jews comprised the majority of the population from the 6th century until 1923.  50% of the city was Jewish during the Ottoman empire.  It was the center of Judaic Theological studies, and was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”  After that, there was an influx of Christians who migrated to Greece.  70% of the Southern part of the city (which was destroyed in the fire of 1917) was Jewish.  After the fire, the Jews were displaced because re-building was not allowed.  It created a homelessness crisis among the Jewish population.

There is a “Holocaust Room” in the museum dedicated to that tragic time period.  Among its artifacts was a machine used to print the yellow stars which the Jews were forced to wear once the Nazis occupied Thessaloniki in April, 1943.  There was also a photo of a 1945 “mass wedding” of survivors whose first families had been killed, as well as a photo of four Auschwitz survivors displaying their tattoos which also hangs in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.


Despite the immense sadness of confronting the tragedy of the destruction of a community which was once so vibrant, we managed to learn a couple of fun facts:

  1. The movie ads were printed in Greek, Hebrew and Ladino.
  2. The Electra Palace Hotel where we spent two nights (and also lit Shabbat candles, davened and performed Havdalah) was once the Yeshiva for boys.

 We could have spent another couple of hours at the museum, but we had to depart for Veria, a small city nestled into the foothills of Northern Greece.  We ran into marathon traffic, but once we got past that it took about an hour to get there.  We learned from our guide that Veria is famous for its pastry shops. 

Our first stop was at a Holocaust memorial, which was dedicated in 2019 by the Central Board of the Communities in Greece.  It is located at the site of the old Jewish Cemetery, which was destroyed by the Nazis.  Some headstones from the old cemetery are embedded in the wall.  I felt more than a tinge of sadness when I saw a bunch of boys playing soccer and basketball in the park directly adjacent to the memorial.  I wondered if they ever noticed the monument or comprehended what it represented?

We then walked along the Tripotamou river in what was the old Jewish quarter, to the location of the Synagogue.  It was tucked away on a little side street.  We were met by Evi, a non-Jewish woman who had a dream to restore the Synagogue as a labor of love, and ultimately lived her dream.  In Evi’s words:  “It saved her life.”  Evi explained the history of the Veria Jewish community and Synagogue to us with a passion that belied her lack of Jewish upbringing.

The Jewish community of Veria has an even more tragic history than the Jews of Thessaloniki:  Jews lived in Veria for over 2,000 years.  There were about 850 Jews when the Nazis arrived.  About 150 were hidden.  The remaining 700 were packed into the very synagogue where 40 of us were comfortably standing, and held for 7 days without any food or water.  There were about 250 children, many of whom died from thirst or starvation.  The Nazis threw the babies out the windows.  Some Jews escaped and joined the partisans.  The remaining were deported to Auschwitz.  Only one came back:  A teenager who married a Christian woman, lived to a ripe old age, and died about 6 years ago.  He never re-connected with the Jewish community, and never wanted to talk about the Holocaust.  His son currently lives in Veria.

After such a moving presentation by Evi, we reverted to Mincha mode, and filled the sanctuary with the kind of prayer that it was built for, and once must have experienced daily.  As we faced the 16th Century ark which was bare, adjacent to a river which once provided the water source for the mikvah, I reflected upon the horrors which took place in that very spot 80 years ago.  Up until this trip I had never heard of Veria.  Now, I will never forget it.  I urge all of you reading this that if you ever go to Greece, make it a point to come to Veria and visit this very special Synagogue.  Evi will welcome you with open arms. 

We headed back to the town center for lunch at a local restaurant.  We passed a 12th Century Byzantine Church under renovation along the way, and decided to take a peek inside.  By the time lunch ended, it was 4:00, and we still had a two-hour drive to our next stop:  Florina.

We arrived at the Emerald Suites hotel in Florina just before 6PM.  As there was no formal program for the night, we were “released” to explore the city on our own for dinner.  A bunch of us walked into downtown Florina to dine at local establishments.  Others chose to have a quiet night in the hotel.  Tomorrow, after a walking tour of Florina, we depart for Macedonia.

Shabbat, April 28-29
Michael Ozer

Shabbat, April 28-29

Michael Ozer (the San Antonio, TX member of TBA!)

We gathered at 7:30pm in a conference room on the first floor of the Electra Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki to light the Shabbat candles. It was emotional. Rabbi Kligfeld first had us look out of the front windows of the room towards the promenade facing the Aegean Sea with hundreds of people scurrying about. He asked us to picture the area in 1943, and to imagine Jews walking there whose lives were about  to drastically change. 

Some 80 years ago Thessaloniki was a vibrant center of Jewish life in Europe, with perhaps the highest percentage of Jews relative to the total population of any city in Europe. That all ended with the Holocaust. 95% of the 50,000 Jews in Thessaloniki perished in the camps.

We lit the Shabbos candles and then formed a circle, closed our eyes, and imagined the lives lost, and our visit this Shabbat to remember this loss, and also to make a statement by our presence that Jewish life continues. We opened our eyes and sang Shalom Aleichem and Hinei  Ma Tov with our arms around each other. I, for one, felt the tears well up and a few streamed down my face. I am seldom so emotional in this way.

The Yad Lazikaron Synagogue was a five minute walk from the hotel. The Sephardic service was traditional orthodox and different from the typical TBA Neshama Minyan/ Kabbalat Shabbat, but the Lecha Dodi melody was the same and we joined in robustly. On one side of the shul were six large marble slabs affixed to the wall,  each with twelve names of Greek communities. In total 72 Jewish communities dating from the first century to the twentieth century were lost to the Shoah.

A Kosher meal followed at the nearby Astoria Hotel. The large room was packed with several different groups celebrating Shabbat dinner. We had to really belt out our zemirot to be heard even among our own tables. 

On Shabbat morning some of our group accompanied Rabbi Kligfeld to the Sephardic shul. There were special Ladino prayers before the Torah service. Rabbi Kligfeld and I were honored with Torah Aliyahs.

I returned to our hotel where Rabbi Schatz was holding a special Shabbat service for others in the group, arriving just in time to enjoy a beautiful Psalm 150 and Nishmat. Rabbi Schatz's  kavanah contrasted the double parsha with aspects of Acharei Mot focusing on the end of life after the death of Aaron's sons,  and Kedoshim  emphasizing mizvot that create holiness in life. We were again made to think of the lives lost in Thessaloniki, and how we and others can work to preserve and grow Jewish life. 

Shabbat lunch was robust at the Astoria Hotel.  Following the meal, Elias, a Kligfeld family from Thessaloniki spoke to us about how his immediate family was saved from the Holocaust. The riveting story was related in a realistic fashion, but also with a bit of humor to lighten it's seriousness.

We then went for a walking tour of the central city which encompassed information about Jewish life in Thessaloniki from antiquity through the Holocaust and up to today. Kostas,  our tour guide, was knowledgeable and interesting. We then stopped at a cafe. Arrangements had been made in advance of Shabbat, so we could all enjoy a refreshing coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and a delicious Greek pastry of our choice.

Mincha was back at the synagogue. Rabbi Kligfeld learned from one of those attending that some individuals are paid to attend, thus ensuring that the shul usually always has a daily minyan for Shacharit and Mincha/Maariv  A  joyful Havdalah followed at the hotel. Many of the group topped off the experience with some smooth Greek brandy.  

After a meaningful and filling Shabbat, we are all looking forward to our week ahead in the Balkans. 

Shavua tov!


Friday, April 28th
Eric Ossentjuk

Friday April 28th

Eric Ossentjuk (a member of Eitz Chaim, in Monroe, NY)

The bus trip from Plovdiv to Thessaloniki, was it worth it?

A bus ride, rumored to be 5 hours in duration, that took about 10 (with a stop for lunch), which all were dreading, came to be. The scenery along the way was breathtaking in spots, traffic was bad but the border crossing was better than expected. We spent some time getting to know each other along the way thanks to Julie’s game. It was revealed that the group has many connections to Kinky Friedman (by the way, Kinky F. has written one of the few country music song commemorating the holocaust - if you want the title let me know), that a few others  played roles in productions of Fiddler on the Roof (some on Broadway -ish) and that there was a celebrity in our midst - the first Dr. to host a medical show on CNN!

At the end of the ride it was hard to tell if the highlight was: (I) the first sighting of the Agean Sea; (ii) seeing Mt. Olympus in the distance; or (iii) sneaking in an extra bathroom break while the bus was fueling up. Either way, once we arrived in Thessaloniki we quickly threw our stuff in the rooms and headed off to services. 

Travelers are often seeking an “authentic experience” when they visit a certain country or city. Tour companies market tours that are lead by “locals” that live in the community. You can arrange a “homestay” in many places and live in a local person’s home to find out what it is like to “live like a local”. In our case attending services at one of the only remaining active synagogues in Thessaloniki (as well as singing and praying in similar spaces in Sofia and Plovdiv earlier in the trip) provided such an experience. Parts of the Sephardic style service were confusing to most (if not all) while parts were familiar, but being able to actually sit there and experience the way it’s done in another country and community is what makes a trip such as this unique.

Afterwards we headed to Shabbat dinner, which was held in a raucous hall echoing with the sounds of talking and singing in many different languages. Reflecting on the thought that the very presence of our group in Thessaloniki, on this Friday, has increased the Jewish population of the city by more than 4% in what was once one of the most Jewish cities in the world one can’t help but be saddened. However,  witnessing the lively back and forth between our group and a group of Israelis during Birkat Hamazon, in what seemed like a test of which group could sing louder, one can’t help but be heartened.  

Yes, the 10 hour ride was worth it and there is still the rest of Thessaloniki to see and experience. 


Thursday, April 27th
Jeff Altman & Margaret Burnett

Thursday, April 27

The day dawned bright and cold — nice weather to sleep in a little. Many of us swam, jacuzzied and/or steamed before a “meager” buffet breakfast. 

We visited Midalidare Winery after a very skillful negotiation by our intrepid bus driver up a narrow gravel road. We tasted Bulgarian wines and learned about the history and the process of winemaking. Definitely a highlight was  watching an amazing planetarium-like movie about the creation story which culminated in the creation of the winery itself. You had to see it to believe it! We then enjoyed lunch at the winery’s restaurant.

On to Plovdiv, where we visited a restored synagogue. It felt good to daven there and bring some life into the building (and into our souls). A walk around Old Town Plovdiv included several Roman sites, including an amphitheater from the 2nd Century. Then it was dinner at our hotel and off to bed as we have an early departure tomorrow for Greece!

-Jeff Altman & Margaret Burnett


Wednesday, April 26
Rebecca Friedman

Wednesday, April 26

I had finally perfected my Bulgarian thank-you and proudly said bla-go-dar-ya to a breakfast waiter (and got a smile and Bulgarian response). The day continued on an upbeat note as we uniquely celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut on the bus ride out of Sofia, by chanting Hallel and singing HaTikvah and Hebrew songs (until the bus driver said he had a headache).

We arrived in Koprivshtitsa, a traditional town with restored 19th century Revival Period buildings. It took longer to find a decent bathroom (that didn’t require coins) than it did to learn how to pronounce the town correctly. We saw a monument to the 1876 uprising against Ottoman (Turkish) rule.  We then walked through the winter and summer houses of the revolutionary Karavelov brothers. These two-story wooden buildings had layers of Turkish roof tiles (similar to what we call Spanish tiles). As we walked out to the road, our immersion in the past continued when we saw a man with a horse-drawn cart. I thought to myself: what century are we really in?

We headed to the Valley of Thracian Kings and Rose Valley, where roses have been grown for centuries. A statue of Thracian Queen Berenice greeted us as we visited a rose oil distillery that processes pink Damascene or Damask roses (originally from Damascus). We arrived at our spa hotel where some enjoyed massages and most everyone relaxed in the warm pools of mineral water.  So what if we looked like a cult, walking around in our identical white robes and grey plastic wristbands?  For this day, I say bla-go-dar-ya. 

-Rebecca Friedman

Monday evening and Tuesday, April 24/25
Barbara Breger

Monday evening and Tuesday, April 24/25

Today, Tuesday we went by bus to the center of Sofia, Bulgaria.  We visited a beautiful Sephardic synagogue which is still in use today.  It has a mikveh which looks similar to the one at theAJU.  There were lots of children's toys lying around which testifies to the vitality of the shul.  We learned that the Bulgarians saved almost all of the country’s Jews during the Holocaust despite diplomatically being aligned with the Nazis.  We saw a beautiful Bulgarian (Eastern) Orthodox church with paintings of a huge number of saints.  We are blessed to only have Hashem to pray to!

After lunch we drove into the mountains to visit the very large and pretty Rila Monastery which used to house about 1000 monks, but today only 10. Afterwards it was back to the city for dinner and then to our gorgeous hotel. —Barbara Breger

The Balkans Trip Begins!
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

A message from Rabbi Kligfeld:

Dear Friends,

To sing and pray where Judaism was once vibrant and robust, and where it is now mostly devoid of Jewish presence. To bond with TBA members with whom one has shared community for decades, but perhaps never more than a quick shabbat shalom.  To be exposed to a totally new culture and begin to learn its history, cuisine, geography and topography. To gather as a minyan in order to permit fellow travelers in mourning to recite kaddish.  To be both utterly on-the-go as an intrepid traveler, and also utterly relaxed and free from the endless tasks that dominate our lives. To sing Hallel, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) and Israel’s 75th birthday, while driving the Bulgarian countryside, singing so loud and long that our wonderful bus-driver Theo thanks us for the serenade but also asks for a little quiet so he can focus on the road.  To visit Koprivtchitsa, the birthplace of the Bulgarian revolution/independence movement in the late 19th C. To observe that which should be more ubiquitous—a mosque, church and synagogue sharing the same essential plot of land in Sofia, their spires visible in one long line with the Muslim crescent, the Christian cross and the Jewish magen david forming a very different kind of trinity—and wonder how to contribute to greater inter-religious partnership and understanding.  To remember that Jewish civilization is proudly thousands of years old, and then to learn that the local Thracian civilization is likely thousands of years older than that.  To help inaugurate one of the newest spa hotels in the Balkans, with the # of different types of saunas, steam rooms and hammams rivaling the # of Bulgarian rakia (sort of their version of Slivovitz) on the menu at the bar.  To travel with TBA, and to learn and to grow and to enjoy and to look forward to the next adventure!

We are, as should be clear, having a grand time, just 48 hours into this experience. And we hope you will all consider joining us on TBA’s Travel experience in 2024, whose destination and tentative dates will be announced soon!

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld