Balkans 2024 Blog

By Adrian Miller

After months of planning and countless messages on Whats App, we have arrived. There were joyous reunions and enthusiastic introductions as people converged on Ljubljana from Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, London and more.  We will share an adventure of a lifetime. 

We gathered at Sisteca for a celebratory dinner. After a brief meeting, it was Laila Tov.

By Larry Miller

After a hearty breakfast we met our guide, Miha, who spent the day guiding us through the streets of Ljubljana. We saw on his map that Ljubljana is shaped like a chicken, and the Jews lived in the head of the chicken. We crossed three bridges across the Ljubljana river  and walked through the marketplace, pausing to taste very fresh milk that Miha explained had been in a cow only hours before.   It tasted so fresh, the cow must have been standing  behind the machine that dispensed the milk. We walked to Ljubljana Castle, taking the funicular to the top. We watched a 3D movie of the history of the castle, and then some of the group walked 92 steps to admire the view, while others opted for a cappuccino in the courtyard. Once back below we spent time examining the bronze doors of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas.

Time for lunch. We dispersed through the streets looking for authentic Slovenian cuisine. 

While some, including Rabbi Kligfeld, chose vegan (no surprise). After lunch Miha guided us through the rain, to the Town Hall, and then to the Jewish Quarter that consisted of a plaque stating where the synagogue was located and a street sign that reads Zidovska


That evening, we walked to the Mini Teater, the epicenter of Jewish life, as it were. Robert, the proprietor, runs the small theater on the first floor. It is a beautiful jewelbox, where this traveler enjoyed multiple glasses of cherry brandy and conversation with the staff. Robert has taken it upon himself to try to resurrect Jewish life in Ljubljana. It is admirable that he has taken it on, since there were never many Jews in the entire country. However,  he has created a beautiful prayer space/museum filled with a fantastic Judaica collection.  It is undergoing extensive remodeling, but what has been completed Is beautiful. 

After davening, we were invited into a multi-course feast served theater stage, that was delicious. During dinner we had the opportunity to dine and converse with his community. We heard fascinating stories about Jewish life during the war. 

During our walk back to the hotel, along the misty lights of the river, we marveled at Robert, and his quest to resurrect and enrich Jewish life in a place where it had only been such a small piece of the chicken’s head.

By Jeff Altman and Margaret Burnett

We left our Ljubljana hotel bright and early, stocked with snacks for the day’s adventure. Nico, our intrepid bus driver, took us across the border from Slovenia into Croatia on the first bus leg of our travels. No passport check necessary as we passed from one EU country to another.

Our destination: Plitvice Lakes National Park, the oldest and largest of Croatia’s national parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site of sixteen pristine lakes and many exquisite waterfalls. 

After several attempts to exit the bus at our hotel in the park (take luggage, leave luggage, take backpacks, leave backpacks), we walked down to one of the lower lakes to catch a boat for a three minute boat ride across the lake to change to a second boat which took us on a longer ride to the lower end of the lake. From there, we hiked 2-3 miles along the edges of several of the lower lakes. We trod on rock paths, dirt trails, and a boardwalk that was constructed right over rushing water. Our guide pointed out beautiful spring wildflowers and the best places to take photos of spectacular waterfalls, the tallest of which was 260 feet. We hiked up a series of switchbacks to our bus to take us back to our hotel. Before departing for our hotel, we davened mincha at the edge of the gorge opposite the tallest waterfall. The scene was so beautiful, we added a special blessing. 

After a short bus ride back to the hotel, we had some relaxation time before dinner, during which we witnessed a thunderstorm, thankfully from the comfort of our rooms.

By Rebecca and Leonard Friedman

Dobro Jutro, or Good Morning in Croatian (which is a difficult language despite its Latin alphabet).  After breakfast conversation about floating shower heads and strudel flavors, we left our hotel.  On the bus ride heading north, we shared memories of Joe Lieberman z”l.

Our tour guide, Plaman, gave us an extensive history lecture, telling us how Croatia was ruled by many different  groups (the Empires that ruled included Roman, Byzantine, Hungarian, and Hapsburg).  After a pit stop, we tried to perfect our roll call process. Instead of numbers, we had each been assigned a Hebrew word from two phrases and the motzi blessing.  Rabbi Kligfeld said go, and everyone shouted their words all at once. After a good laugh, we restarted and called out our words, one-by-one.  We’re improving.  Margaret says Hashem so we don’t have to pass around a bag of rolls after saying motzi (and Avi has the last word: Amen).

On our way to Vinarija Jagunic (winery), the bus took a wrong turn and had to slowly back up on a narrow road.  The winery then sent a red car to escort us through winding roads, surrounded by lush greenery.  We arrived and enjoyed tasting sparkling and amber (or “orange”) wines.  Dominic, the 4th generation co-owner with his brother, talked about wine-making and explained how this region in central Croatia (at the same latitude as Italy) is known for its sparkling wines.

We arrived in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb, and learned how Jews had played a prominent role in building the lower city.  Although some Jews settled here as early as 1355, the Jewish community was not established until 1806.  From 1925-1938, approximately 25% of buildings were owned by Jews.  We visited the Jewish Community Center where Sasha told us how the center’s gan, library, youth club, women’s group, Holocaust association, museum, and synagogue (mostly on holidays) serves the 1,200 current members of “Jewish origin” (their heritage is validated).  As we davened Mincha there, we honored a community that had over 12,000 Jews before the Holocaust.  A few houses down, we passed a stolperstein (stumbling stone) for Chief Rabbi Freiberger who perished in Auschwitz in 1943.

After a long day, we checked into our hotel —- which is where The Rolling Stones famously trashed their room in the 1970s.  We’re on our best behavior.

By Carl Sunshine

This morning we drove to the Jasenovac memorial and museum where a guide explained the history of World War  2 in this region. The Nazis put in place an extreme Croatian nationalist government which eagerly rounded up Jews but also Serbians, Roma, and dissidents, bringing them to this camp. Here the Ustase Croats murdered most of them and buried them in the nearby forest, since the local populace complained about the smell from initial attempts to burn them. A large flower-like memorial was created about 20 years ago and a museum houses artifacts and displays.

A short drive took us to lunch in a small village with storks nesting on the roofs.

After returning to Zagreb we walked the short distance to the Bet Israel center which is a synagogue set up in a redecorated apartment building. Services were led by Rabbi Dadon in traditional sefardi style. We were served a sumptuous dinner, but by ourselves so we had little opportunity to interact with the community

Rabbi Kligfeld led a short prayer service at the end of our visit.

By Tove Sunshine

Shabbat March 30 continuing in beautiful Zagreb, capital of Croatia, a contingent set out for Rabbi Dadon’s community and synagogue, Bet Israel, for morning services.  We had a smaller group of women, the majority staying for a later 10:30 “high points of the service” with Rabbi Schatz, but enough to make the minyan at Bet Israel.  Apparently, before COVID, the community had a reliable minyan but has struggled since.  It was remarkable for us in that Rabbi Dadon essentially did everything:  led services, read Torah, and read haftarah.  RAK was honored with the first Aliyah as were most of the men from our group with later aliyot.  On the women’s side of a relatively unoppressive mehitzah (glass with a not very obscuring floral pattern) we missed our booming female “choir” from Friday evening but helped each other navigate the service, since page calling was not a feature, and by the end had a fair number of women from the community as well.  A couple of us decided to follow a tradition I’d observed elsewhere, and stood up on our side when our husbands were called up for their aliyah.  We all experienced a sense of connection and bridging communities when various psalms and Adon Olam were sung to familiar melodies.

Back at the hotel Rabbi Schatz led a (reportedly) moving service that focused on gratitude.  That group then left to join us at the synagogue for a lovely lunch, with a similar extensive first course that the night before had led many of us to think that was the main meal but this time the cook warned us that beef cholent was coming.  We were pleased to have Rabbi Dadon join us (he had been dining separately with community members and his sons, one recently returned from Israel after serving 6 months in the IDF, some of the time in Gaza).  He spent quite a while with us telling how he, an Israeli, had come to Austria and Croatia for advanced education which ultimately and unexpectedly led to rabbinical studies and his role in Zagreb.  Among major accomplishments of the community was the founding of a 1-8 Jewish school which developed a very favorable reputation, drawing the president of Croatia’s child as well as other notables.  Currently about half the school is Jewish and half not, but the curriculum includes Jewish studies and Hebrew.  

After our meal and time with Rabbi Dadon we returned for a little rest and change of clothes and then embarked on a wonderful walking tour with our wonderfully expressive and sympathetic Croatian guide, Vanya.  She took us through the more “recent” lower city (18th-19th centuries) with bustling pedestrian streets filled with outdoor cafes and leisurely coffee drinking.  We made our now traditional stop at a wonderful coffee, tea, gelato, and pastry place, where we had prepaid for our treats and had a delicious sit down of our own.  We then proceeded to the upper city, dating in places to the medieval era, where we enjoyed both the architecture and views.  We began to head back as the sun set via a series of intriguing tunnels that had been built by the Ustase Croatian regime, which had worked with the Germans during World War, creating their own death camps.  After havdalah back at the hotel people set out for dinner either in town or, for the less ambitious, in the very nice hotel restaurant.

By Deborah Chariton

After a “free” Saturday night and our final of three sumptuous breakfasts at the ideally located Westin Zagreb, we were instructed to load all our luggage onto the bus by 9:15AM.  While that may sound “reasonable” for a jam-packed tour, Croatia “Sprung Ahead” last night.  So, to us it was 8:15AM.  I had taken an early morning walk, and happened to find myself near the Jewish Community Center where we spent Thursday afternoon.  I decided to cross the street to see if – just by chance – there were any more stolpersteines (“stumbling stones”). Sure enough, I found one across the street.  I also “stumbled” upon another one close to the shul where we spent Shabbat.

We had to check out of our rooms by 11:00.  But, we essentially had the morning free.  At 11:45 we split…for Split!  In a unique and interesting twist which was a “first” for a TBA trip:  Our bus traveled to Split with our luggage – but without us!  This enabled us to avoid the nefarious checked bag and (for some of us) overweight luggage fees and go “carry-on only” for our TBA party flight from Zagreb to Split.  The travel geeks in the group added two additional airports and one additional airline to their running lists.  You have truly not lived until you experienced at least one flight segment with a TBA contingent.  Even better if the aircraft is a Bombardier Q-400 propeller jet!  Alas, we were scattered throughout the cabin.  So, there was no realistic opportunity to daven mincha onboard.  But, we made up for it by trying — and immediately failing — to count off – in Hebrew.

After a short 50-minute flight with some breathtaking views on the approach, we landed in Split’s beautiful, modern airport – ahead of our bus by about 15 minutes.  Once reunited with our “ghost bus,” we made our way into town.  (This is where I will digress and give well-deserved kudos to whomever flawlessly executed this strategy.  It worked brilliantly, despite one small hiccup in figuring out the logistics of getting the bus onto the airport property so that we could actually board it.) 

Our guide, Plamen, gave us an overview of Split’s history.  Split is the main town of Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast, a critical port city, and the second biggest city in Croatia after Zagreb. There 0ver 1,200 islands in Croatia, but only about 40 of them are inhabited.  (Our guide in Split later told us that about 55 of them are inhabited.)  We saw some of them as we were descending.

Split was conquered ad nauseum over the centuries – by the Slavs, the Venetians, the Romans, the Austro-Hungarians, and even Napoleon.  It was part of the Roman Empire from the late 11th Century until the Middle Ages.  In 1929 it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which lasted until 1991, when Croatia once again became an independent country.  There is a heavy Italian influence along the Mediterranean Coast, and Split did not disappoint in that regard.  The name “Split” comes from the Albanian word meaning “sheep” or “shepherd.”  But, the Venetian name is “Spalato,” which aptly rhymes with “gelato.”

We checked into the beautiful Ambasador (not a typo – one “s”) Hotel right on the waterfront at about 4:30PM.  Many of us were assigned to rooms with picture postcard views of the Adriatic Sea.  We had 90 minutes before gathering in the lobby for a 6PM walking tour.

We headed out on the waterfront promenade in front of the hotel, passing a square that was modeled on Venice, and smelling the salty, fishy air.  We then made our way to Diocletian’s Palace – a massive late-3rd Century stone dwelling in the middle of the city where the Roman Emperor Diocletian spent his retirement years after renouncing the crown.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Attention GAME OF THRONES fans:  Our guide told us that the scenes in which Daenerys chained up her dragons were filmed at the palace. 

We departed Diocletian’s Palace and made our way back down toward the waterfront.  Every twist and turn brought a new piazza or Venetian-like alleyway into view.  We finally arrived at Restaurant Brasserie on 7, where we had a lovely Italian meal overlooking the waterfront. 

We are only in Split for one night.  Tomorrow morning, we will be taking a Jewish walking tour of the Old Town (hopefully without the accompaniment of throngs of Cruise Ship People) before piling back onto our bus and making our way down the Dalmatian Coast to the port city of Dubrovnik. 

This is the official mid-point of our Balkans 2.0 tour.  Each passing day – while meaningful and action-packed – is bittersweet.  We have seen some truly amazing sites, with many more to come.  But, we are also confronting the horrors of the mid- and late-20th Century across multiple religious and ethnic groups, and will continue to do so.  And, we are getting closer to the end of yet another TBA intensive and immersive travel experience.  In a way, this trip has been a metaphor for Stolpersteine:  We are “stumbling” upon experiences which we hadn’t anticipated.  And, we memorialize those experiences (both anticipated and stumbled upon) in this blog for those in the TBA community who were unable to join us.

Deborah Chariton

By Wanda and Avi Peretz

Today is April Fool’s Day. While tempting, we can’t devote too much time to foolishness. After all, it’s not every day you get to stay in a magnificent hotel, with each room overlooking the Aegean. A certain rabbi we all know suggested forgetting about the rest of the trip and just spending our time in the Ambasador Hotel, Split, Croatia. Even the usual buffet breakfast was buffet for cold food, special order for hot. Unfortunately, the rabbi was kidding about staying and it was time to get down to business. But before that, we had to celebrate Michael Ozer’s 65th birthday. Welcome to Medicare, Mike. 

Upon stepping outside for our tour, we realized that Split would blow us away. The Birthday Boy lost his hat, watching it fly away in the end. But wait! Like a boomerang, it came right back to him. A true birthday miracle! But nothing could stop this group from pressing on. Not even a few steps, the kind you actually have to climb – I stopped counting at 5000. It’s hard to complain when you see runners preparing to run a race from the shore up the mountain. But we did anyway because we are who we are. 

The Jewish cemetery was in a park high above Split. It is not properly cared for, but wild irises, soft grass, and long-stemmed dandelions swayed gently around the many grave markers and exuded a solemnity that was enhanced by RAK chanting (at Fran’s suggestion) an El Maleh. 

Through all this, we were led by our wonderfully competent guide, Lea. She explained the history of the Jewish presence in Split from Venetian control from the 1400’s to the end of the 17th century. The Venetians treated the Split Jews better than they did the Italian Jews because they needed the trade benefits they brought to this Venetian outpost. Split became a huge port on the Adriatic (!) because of the efforts of Daniel Rodriguez, a Venetian Jew of Portuguese descent, in the early 1500s. A street in Split is named after him. In the 1790’s, Napoleon defeated the Venetians and held onto Split for 10 years, after which it was taken over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. In the early years of WWII, the Jews of Split were sent off to camps in Italy. These camps were labor rather than extermination camps, and after Italy surrendered in 1943, the Jews came back and many joined the resistance to the Nazis who had occupied much of Croatia. As expected, the Jews of Split fared no better than most of their brethren in central and Eastern Europe. 

Post war, Split’s Jewish community is tiny, and most of them are not halachically Jewish. We learned this the only functioning synagogue in Split run by Lea’s 75-year old father. In his determination to not be thwarted by desperation, he told us that anyone who wanted to acknowledge any firm of Jewish connection was fully welcomed. The Jews of Split do not have the luxury of strict adherence to halacha. The synagogue was on the 2nd floor of a house on the western edge of the ancient Roman palace, just off Daniel Rodriguez Street. There was a poignant beauty to it, even there are rarely of ever services held in it. Just Friday night and holiday gatherings of the self-identifying Jews. The bimah was elevated 10 feet above the main floor, and had a line from the Hallel on it. Of course, the rabbis had to lead us in singing Pit-chu Li (reads like a Chinese warlord). It was an amazing experience.

Thankfully, it was time for lunch after spending the morning walking and climbing. We were grateful to finally be able to sit, as our dogs were barking. Makes perfect sense for a place named after a dog breed – Dalmatians. 

Everything has to be a learning experience, and lunch was no different. Olive oil, as presented by the cutest little woman with orange hair and an adorable chic wedge haircut. But you knew she could get testy if you insulted her by confusing virgin with extra virgin olive oil. Lunch was fantastic, especially the oil-infused ice cream. 

Back on the bus, on the road to Dubrovnik. Shaggy dog and other stories. Jokes. Lessons. The Bridge!

Dubrovnik – the Little Oak Forest. Only 41,000 people. Split, which many of us had never heard of, had 160,000 people. Being a tourist attraction helped Dubrovnik become famous. What’s in store for tonight? Another meal and then celebrate Mike’s birthday with Rakia!

By Rachel Green and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

Wednesday morning we left Dubrovnik and drove to Mostar. Mostar was a small town where we had the opportunity to hear a bit of history and walk the “shuk” streets to experience the intersection of old custom, culture and history into modern day. As we were walking the streets, I was immediately taken with a beautiful ceramic plate. The plate had 6 compartments atop it, in teardrop shapes that together puzzled into a center Jewish star looking dish. I walked past it but could not help but think about how beautiful it would be to use as a seder plate. After a sweet stroll and hearing about the history, I was drawn to go back and purchase this ceramic plate set. I asked the woman if it was made here, she said no, that it was made in Sarajevo (the city we were about to go and visit). I was moved to buy a seder plate, made in a predominantly Muslim city, and used for a holiday such as Passover, in April of 2024. Keep this story in mind.

We left Mostar and arrived in Sarajevo. We were late after visiting the Sarajevo Haggadah, and flustered and tired from the long bus ride, but intrigued and eager to meet with the Muslim community that evening. We rushed up to our rooms, threw down our luggage, and came downstairs to a room shared with our community and the Muslim community. At first, we were the only ones in the room, with 6 prayer rugs, ready to begin our paralleled “ma’ariv” services. 5 members of the Muslim community came into the room, immediately welcomed us and invited us to share in their rituals to finish a day of fasting for Ramadan. 

Before the day ended, the Imam sang the call to prayer. My eyes filled with tears as soon as he began. We are surrounded by newsreels and videos that have sounds of Muslim community that fill us with fear and anger. And yet, he started to sing and it was beautiful, and soothing, and used words that we hear and have visceral reactions of anxiety to bring peace and harmony and love into the room. Think for a moment when you last heard “Allahu Akbar” and how that makes your body feel. That anxiety, yelling, fear, and hate is a bastardization of a tradition and religion and prayer that can and should be used for peace and hope, just like in this moment. I have always loved hearing the call to prayer, and record it any time I hear it over the loudspeaker, but this was in person, and even more beautiful. The Imam stood there, in our presence, with eyes closed, singing us into a trance of prayer, of t’fillah, introspection and self reflection. I am positive we all had a moment of self-check in that moment and a BIG relief of hope and love. I sat, listening to his call to prayer, and was moved to listen and learn and open up to their stories more than before. A call to prayer and a call to love. 

They said an intentional prayer, after the call, before eating their date and drinking some water, and we said a blessing after theirs to taste the sweetness of the beginning of this gathering. We were not fasting, but in a way, we were all beginning something and hopefully ending other things by eating into those dates together. 

Our Muslim friends began their evening prayer after eating the initial date to break their fast, and then we concluded our day with Ma’ariv after them. To watch the choreography, the placement of feet, of hands, of closed eyes, of leader and community was peaceful and calming. Though we did not know what they were saying, or praying, of course, I could not help but feel a sense of hopeful future that we could pray together in a room one after the other. We then did our call to prayer, barchu, to start Ma’ariv, and I hope they felt the same about watching our prayer practice as we did for theirs. 

Dinner came next, where we sat together and had many interesting conversations to learn and to listen to each other. We shared moments of learning around Halal vs. Kashrut, Fasting in both religions, prayer in both religions, etc. A few interesting points that we heard and learned: Muslims need 2 people to have communal prayer – allowing for a family household to be considered communal prayer. Halal and Kashrut as similar in that we recognize the power of humans over animal life and take into consideration the animal’s feeling, life, and gratitude for the sustenance they will give humans in their sacrifice. Both Muslims and Jews connect to fasting as a way of reflection, of supplication and of connecting to a higher power without physical sustenance. 

The evening was over, and we left the room to go back to our own rooms, our own religions, our own newsreels and our own traditions. However, my hope is that we went our own ways now influenced greatly by the connection and learning from one another. We have visited many Jewish communities that are small and grasping onto anything and anyone they can. And yet, this is where I felt most connected to the future of my Judaism. Finding connection, peace, hope and learning by talking and listening with open hearts and ears to one another’s stories and the ways where we converge. 

So remember that seder plate. Its not a seder plate, its a plate with 6 compartments and a center dish that reminds me of a Jewish star. It’s a plate, made in a Muslim city, hopefully by hands of someone who believes in the peace and harmony that their tradition and religion brings them. And now, it’s a plate that I will use, on a holiday that is about freedom from slavery, redemption, story-telling and building relationships to be stronger as a nation and people. I hope to host this Muslim community at a seder in the future, and to proudly share that a simple plate at first reminded me of my holiday of redemption, but now reminds me of the redemption we must find together by listening, learning and loving one another.

By Barbara C Breger

The group went to services at the synagogue and also had lunch there. Then we had a 4 hour walking tour of the city including seeing the old fort which was built on a hill near the center of the city. The walk was fun and included a stop for pastries. This was our last day of the trip so we went to a restaurant close to the hotel for farewell dinner. The restaurant was a very busy one but we had a private dining room which was really very pretty. We were entertained by four native dancers who kept changing their clothes so that we saw a variety of native clothing. The music was supplied by a duo of a clarinet and accordion for the dancing and then a group of foup lyed for us. The dancing and music were totally fun. With the music of the foursome Rabbi Kligfeld and Avi Peretz were dancing around holding bottles of Rakia on their heads. (They were unable to dance without holding the bottles.)

It was then time to return to ours rooms for whatever time we had til we had to get the bus to the airport and return home. Some of us were on a 3:30AM bus to the airport.

All in all this was a trip of a lifetime. The people who took care of the details of the trip as hotels, food, buddes, etc did a great job.. Rabbi Kligfeld found places we needed to see to enhance our understanding of how Jew lived in the four countries that we visited. He also arranged an Iftar for us. An Iftar is a dinner that Muslims have at the end of the day when their fast of Ramadan finishes. We met with six Muslim leaders before and after dinner and sat with them at dinner. They were served a special dinner for after the fast and we learned so much from them and became friends with them. The whole trip was a very emotional one because we learned about Jews and how they lived before the communities were decimated during WWII. We learned about concentration camp set up by the Croation Authority in association with the Italian Fascists in Croatia where many Jews died. We saw many old synagogues and met many Jews who still live in the Balkans. We learned about inspirational people like Robert who was not Jewish who set up a synagogue in the same facility as his puppet house. He later converted to Judaism. We had a fantastic group of travelers led by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz. We had times of laughter and times of tears. Every one of us returned home with memories of our friends on the trip, memories of the places we visited and things that we saw. We had a great trip.