It’s hard to imagine that Vukan Marinković went through a good portion of his childhood unaware of his Jewish identity.

As a student at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, a Chabad-Lubavitch run institution in Jerusalem; former professor of Jewish thought; and co-founder of Rimon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving Jewish life in his native Croatia, Marinković strikes the image of a person who grew up in an environment infused with Jewish culture and religious practice. But the 31-year-old, who also goes by the name Benny, was born and raised in Zagreb, where the majority of the capital’s 2,000 Jews spent most of the last century completely disconnected from the local community.

“The Jewish community of Zagred has faced Nazism, Communism, war and the Yugoslav secession,” explains Marinković, listing a litany of roadblocks to Croatian Jewish life. “After the Croatian War of Independence, however, things started to improve. In 1996, the community received its first rabbi since the Holocaust. Traditional Jewish life was for the first time, reintroduced.”

Although he had attended community-based camps for several years, it wasn’t until his late teens that Marinković became interested in actually strengthening his Jewish identity. Through his study of philosophy and comparative religion at a Jesuit college in Zagreb, the only place in the Eastern European nation where religious studies were academically available, he began to delve into classic Jewish texts and examine his own religious connection.

In Israel for the year, Marinković , who was a recent participant in the 2011 ROI Summit, a Jewish leadership program based in Jerusalem, is taking time out from community work to dedicate himself to full-time Jewish learning at Mayanot.

“As my knowledge developed about other religions, I became aware of my very superficial knowledge of Judaism and I felt a need to learn more,” he says. He eventually wrote a thesis on the first five of Maimonides’ principles of faith, and earned his M.A. in Philosophy and Religious Studies.

In 2008, after spending the year learning Jewish philosophy at Paideia-The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Marinković became increasingly involved in creating educational and cultural programs for the Zagreb Jewish community. He began lecturing in Jewish philosophy at the University of Zagreb, co-founded the Rimon Center and also started working with the local Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, Rabbi Pinchas and Raizel Zaklas, on community projects.

Remarkably, many of the courses he organized for Rimon were tailored to non-Jewish residents of Zagreb, and none of the students in his philosophy course had any demonstrable Jewish ancestry.

“There is a huge interest by non-Jews in Jewish culture, mysticism and politics,” explains Marinković. “There is a lot of ignorance about Judaism in the non-Jewish world, especially in Croatia, and a lot of confusion and misunderstanding stems from it. That is why we decided that giving tailored courses could help bridge the gap between these two populations.”

Marinković claims that despite the ignorance amongst the general population about Judaism, anti-Semitism in Croatia is minimal.

“There are groups of individuals who discuss Judaism using [pejorative] language,” he says. “However, that is not unique to Croatia. It is just a sign that we are part of the European milieu.”

You can easily wear a yarmulke on the streets of Zagreb, he points out, and although you may be recognized as a Jew, a reaction is unlikely.

Marinković, who was a participant in the 2011 ROI Summit, a Jewish leadership program based in Jerusalem, has put all his previous obligations on hold in order to focus on learning at Mayanot.

“Through the course of my academic studies, the need to integrate spiritual, religious, emotional and cultural life became more apparent,” he explains. “And that’s how I got more interested in Chasidic thought as a means to bridge these fragmented expressions of Judaism that I encountered and appropriated through study and life. I came to Mayanot to try and unify the various parts of Judaism and to learn how Chasidic thought perceives unity between Jewish law, philosophy and psychology.”

Marinković is currently working on a book about the development of Jewish thought, from antiquity to the Renaissance period. However, he insists that his year in Israel is more about self-development than research.

And as for the future, Marinković says he’s interested in completing a Ph.D. in medieval Jewish philosophy either in Israel or the United States. Asked whether he will be returning to Croatia soon, Marinković explains that he is not yet ready.

“In order to be of better service to the Jewish people,” he says, “I need to gain more knowledge and need to integrate Judaism into various aspects of my life.”