The streets of Sofia, Bulgaria overflowed with celebrants as the city’s Jewish community gathered to dedicate a ritual bath, complete a Torah scroll and open a kosher restaurant all on the same day.

Foreign dignitaries, including Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky – the New York-based vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch – joined local politicians and 500 other people for the Monday festivities. The date also marked seven years since the arrival of Rabbi Yosef and Tamar Salamon to establish the Rohr Chabad Jewish Community Center in the Bulgarian capital.

“Everything was so special,” said Sofia resident Yitzchak Samueloff, 31, who brought his wife and daughter to the celebration.

Things kicked off with the dedication of the ornate ritual bath, known in Hebrew as a mikvah. The community then held a ceremony where members had the opportunity to write one of the last few letters in their new Torah scroll. The celebration progressed to the opening of the restaurant, while a steady stream of revelers took the singing and dancing outside; neighbors could be seen leaving their homes to clap along to the music.

“There was no break,” said Sammy Yudelzon, 18.

“It was very touching to see dancing in the streets of Sofia,” remarked Eldad Berkovitz, who came to Bulgaria from his native Israel six months ago looking for work.

The 30-year-old Berkovitz decided to make the move permanent after he met the Salamons. Today, he sends two of his three children to the preschool that Tamar Salamon operates from the Chabad center.

For her part, Salamon said that she was particularly proud of the new mikvah. Between 15 and 20 married couples have already expressed interest in using the facility, she elaborated, as part of the laws governing ritual purity for the Jewish family. A preexisting mikvah dating back decades is in poor condition, she added.

“The mikvah is very modern and state-of-the-art,” said Salamon, who teaches a monthly class for women that uses the culinary and visual arts to explore the themes of Jewish holy days. “Many women have been waiting for this.”

More than a few community members were equally excited about the new Italian-themed restaurant. With a capacity to serve large groups and wedding parties, the glatt kosher establishment was built with the needs of Bulgaria’s growing tourist sector in mind.

“Before, there was no place to sit and eat and meet Jewish people,” said Berkovitz.

Way Past Midnight

A concluding dinner at the Princess Hotel in Sofia lasted long into the night.
A concluding dinner at the Princess Hotel in Sofia lasted long into the night.

Looking back on the festivities, which were followed the next day by a conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Eastern Europe, Yosef Salamon asserted that the multitude of joy clearly affected the community.

“Usually, so many special events don’t all happen on the same day, anywhere,” he said. “But all of these things – the Torah, keeping kosher, family purity – represent the basis of Judaism. We wanted everyone to receive the light of these three foundations.”

At a concluding dinner at the Princess Hotel, Kotlarsky and Amar shared stories of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Amar, in particular, described his first-hand impressions of the Rebbe’s love for Jews everywhere. As a boy growing up in Morocco, he said, he witnessed the tireless efforts of Rabbi Shlomo Matusof – whom the Rebbe sent to North Africa in 1951 – in strengthening the Jewish community there.

Other notables at the dinner included Maxim Benvenisti, president of the local Jewish community; Mayor Boiko Borissov; and Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria Noah Gendler.

According to Berkovitz, the dinner quickly gave way to succeeding choruses of Chasidic melodies that lasted way past midnight.

“There was happiness, dancing and singing,” he said. “It was like a different world.”

Added Samueloff: “It was a privilege and honor to be there.”