When he first heard about Serbia from his study partner, Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzky conjured up images of the war-torn Balkan republic most people remember from news reports: bombed-out buildings and economic stagnation.

But Kaminetzky, 24, is the first to admit that the Serbia of the past is not the Serbia of the present, let alone the future. What he and his wife Miri, 23, see is a country full of potential, and a Jewish community on the brink of rapid expansion.

The Kaminetzkys, the new directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Serbia, are the country’s first full-time emissaries. After arriving last week, they jumped head first into promoting Jewish activities, all while awaiting a container full of possessions and furniture from their native Israel to clear customs.

“Thank G‑d, we’re managing with a handful of outfits and some frozen food,” says Miri Kaminetzky, a new mother of an infant boy. “This past Shabbat, we used kosher wine from the Duty Free for Kiddush.”

With a community of an estimated 3,200 Jewish people spread out over some 10 cities, Serbia’s Jewish history dates back to the Roman empire. Today, however, it faces the challenges of institutionalized poverty dating from years of war, and the growing shadow of assimilation.

According to Rabbi Isak Asiel, a native-born Orthodox rabbi serving at Belgrade’s only synagogue, even though an influx of Israeli residents and tourists is importing some youth, some 60 percent of the Jewish community is elderly. Intermarriage is high, at 90 percent.

Those numbers spurred Kaminetzky’s study partner, whose father had an associate in Serbia, to convince him and his wife to move to Belgrade.

“He said that they really need emissaries,” says Yehoshua Kaminetzky.

Like the Kaminetzkys, Amatzia Sprukt, 65, whose wife Galia voluntarily teaches Hebrew to the children of local Israeli ex-patriots, is decidedly positive when it comes to Serbia’s Jewish future. The Israeli entrepreneur is trying to get foreign investors to underwrite development projects all across the country.

“Serbia has a very big potential,” he says.

Jewish Rebirth

Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzky, the new co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Serbia, helps a member of the local Jewish community in Belgrade don tefillin.
Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzky, the new co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Serbia, helps a member of the local Jewish community in Belgrade don tefillin.

For several years, teams of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students have visited communities throughout the country as part of the summer program operated by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, that provides Jewish outreach in locales not served by full-time rabbis. Back in September, the city of Novi Sad celebrated a rededication of its historic synagogue when Rabbis Motti Seligson and Saadya Notik affixed a mezuzah to its front-door and blew the ram’s horn known as a shofar.

“The people in this community have never seen such an event before,” Dr. Ana Frankel, president of the Novi Sad Jewish community, said at the time.

In Belgrade, even before they moved in, the Kaminetzkys – who were appointed by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and funded in part by a grant from the Rohr Family Foundation – distributed shmurah matzah, kosher wine, food and Haggadahs in advance of Passover.

After their arrival, they quickly reached out to the cadre of Israelis in the city. On Friday, they went to the municipal arena, site of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, to find some Jewish fans. They ended up meeting Israeli singer Boaz Mauda and his entourage.

“We gave them wine and candles for Shabbat,” says the rabbi. “Then, all the men put on tefillin. One man even resolved to put on tefillin every Friday.”

The Federation of the Jewish Community of Serbia, led by Aleksandar Necak, provided food for the rest of the Israeli contingent's stay.

For her part, Miri Kaminetzky, who is trained in special education, is planning to open a nursery school next year. Her first women’s group meeting is slated for this week.

Sprukt agrees that Jewish education is needed in Serbia.

“I am sure they will integrate well here,” says Sprukt. “They will bring blessings.”