NEW YORK — The sound of NATO bombs is a fresh memory for Yugoslavs and the signs of their destruction are everywhere in the country. U.S. citizens are not very welcome guests these days.

But two young American rabbis who visited the Jewish community in Belgrade this summer found it didn't matter where they came from. The Jews there welcomed them warmly, and excitedly absorbed the lessons and Jewish literature they brought along.

Rabbis Nochum Goldschmid and Yona Vilenkin, both 23, met with members of the Jewish community in Belgrade for five days this summer, spending time with individuals and groups hungry for the lessons and spiritual boost they came to offer. The rabbis represented the first Jewish group from outside the area to enter since the NATO air strikes.

"The Jews tried to remain as neutral as possible — and in some ways the fighting here in the last decade has brought the Jewish community together. Neither Muslims nor Serbs, they were identified for the first time as Jews," said Rabbi Vilenkin. "But they suffered from the destruction that everyone else did as well."

Nevertheless, the rabbis found even among the poorest Jews a desire to purchase the books and religious supplies they brought. "One woman told us how hard things were, and how little money she had," Vilenkin said. "Then, she offered us $100 for books. We realized that this was her entire salary, so we "sold" them to her for two or three dollars."

The rabbis' visit was part of a five-week swing through the Balkan states that took Goldschmid and Vilenkin from Bulgaria to Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and, finally, to Serbia (Yugoslavia) as part of a program sponsored by the Lubavitch World Headquarters.

Each summer, pairs of rabbinical students fan out around the globe to meet with Jews in some of the world's most remote locations to help them with pastoral services as well as practically — with books and religious items not easily accessible to them throughout the year.

For Vilenkin the trip provided many experiences and skills he will remember and build on throughout the future he plans as a Lubavitch emissary. But the most memorable moment of his travels this summer he says occurred in Belgrade, when he met one of the oldest Jews in the community.

"He was about 65 or 70 years old. He wanted to visit the cemetery where his grandfather and father were buried. But it was in the hills from which the Serbs launched their attacks on the Muslims, and the area was covered with landmines. He was afraid to go alone.

"We went with him, and he was so moved and overwhelmed by the experience, he asked if there was something he could do to show his gratitude," said Rabbi Vilenkin. "We told him he could put on tefilin. So he did, right then and there, on this mountain overlooking this gorgeous landscape that was so ravaged by war. It was very moving."

If Vilenkin once wondered how much could be accomplished by these brief annual visits, he is now convinced of their impact. "We had the name of a man that the last pair of Lubavitch rabbis, who came to Belgrade two years ago, met with for a long time. He had no Jewish background at all.

They had introduced him to everything Jewish. We called him when we got there and arranged to meet with him the next day.

"At the appointed time we rang the bell and a religious man in a 'kippah' and beard came to the door," said Rabbi Vilenkin.

"Needless to say we were not expecting this. But because of our friends' visit two years ago he started going to see Belgrade's rabbi, borrowed books, and did lots of learning. Today he studies Torah several hours a day, and is a completely observant Jew. My friends would never have known of their own impact."

The community outreach program, known in some circles as the Lubavitch "Summer Peace Corps," was developed more than 50 years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. It is sponsored by Merkos L'inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Lubavitch movement, and coordinated by its staff, who help with travel plans, visas, contacts in various countries, and lodging. The volunteer rabbinical students maintain contact with the Lubavitch World Headquarters throughout the summer, reporting on their progress and seeking assistance when needed.

This past summer the rabbis and rabbinical students visited countries from Zimbabwe to Peru, Vietnam to Ethiopia, Malaysia to the Dutch West Indies. Lubavitch representatives also visited states and provinces within the United States and Canada that are only sparsely populated by Jews. Montana, Wyoming and Saskatchewan were among those on the list.

Some of the Jews the rabbis go to meet in distant world regions are natives; others live there for business reasons or diplomatic postings. Still others are on military service.

The young rabbis, selected on the basis of their rabbinic proficiency and people skills, travel in pairs. All have had previous experience in outreach work, an expertise they developed while still in high school, whether in their own home towns or as assistants to Lubavitch emissaries at various Chabad centers around the world. Some have traveled independently to prepare Passover seders and other Jewish activities in communities with no rabbi at all.

Traveling in pairs enables them not only to assist each other, but to combine their skills to accomplish their goals. "One of us is better at giving lectures to larger groups, the other at speaking to people one on one," said Rabbi Vilenkin. In some cases they must rely heavily on all their resources, to run a day camp, for instance, such as those run this year in Jamaica and in Dublin, Ireland.

The more than 200 young rabbis chosen travel with suitcases full of videos, brochures, books, Sabbath candles, mezuzahs, tefilin (phylacteries) and kosher food. In some communities they make contact with groups and individuals through the established local Jewish community. In places where this infrastructure does not exist their contacts come through referrals, informed guesswork, and thumbing through telephone directories.

Rabbis Goldschmid and Vilenkin have been classmates and friends from pre-school through rabbinical school, and have traveled together before, to conduct Passover seders in Siberia. During their trip to the Balkans they were told that it would be impossible to get into Yugoslavia. Since no U.S. citizens are currently being granted visas, the rabbis' initial request was denied.

But concerned about the welfare of this beleaguered community, the two pursued all angles to enter the country. Finally, through a chain of contacts they established while in Croatia, and lots of networking, a visa was granted, and the rabbis entered Belgrade.

Meetings with the Jews there revealed a harsh existence. Before the bombings the Jewish population in Yugoslavia numbered 3,500. Since then, hundreds have departed, mainly for Israel, leaving 2,000 Jews today, says Rabbi Vilenkin.

The country's infrastructure is still in chaos; electricity is limited, and a hard winter is approaching. Jobs have been compromised by the destruction, and salaries are meager.

How does reaching out to unaffiliated Jewish people in Nebraska — as Vilenkin has done in years past — differ from reaching out to Jews in the former Soviet Union, or other countries with sparse Jewish populations?

"The difference is choice," Vilenkin says. "In the United States, people can choose to avail themselves of the resources to learn more about their Judaism. In the former Soviet Union, they are starving for the basics. They know there is a Bible, but they have never opened it. They feel they are getting something from which they have been deprived all their lives. And they appreciate everything we do."

"Everything" includes the follow-up the rabbis are doing since their return. "I receive e-mails everyday from so many of the people we met. Today, this keeps you in touch."