Bulgaria: Part 1 of our International Students Series
There are only ten shomer-shabbos families in Bulgaria, and Shmuel Yudelzon’s family is one of them. (“Three of the other families,” he adds with a smile, “are kiruv rabbis from outside of Bulgaria.”)
As a small country in southeastern Europe, Bulgaria has a modest Jewish population of only a few thousand Jews. The population downsized dramatically in the 1940s, when—with the end of World War II and the establishment of a Communist government in Bulgaria—most of the 50,000 Jews left via a massive Aliyah to Israel. The remnants of the population stayed behind due to age, ideological reasons, or family.
When the communist regime fell twenty-five years ago, Jews slowly began returning to Bulgaria, but the modern-day population is now only a fraction of what it once was. Growing up in such a small Jewish community had its challenges. There were no accessible Orthodox Jewish schools, requiring Shmuel to attend a public high school, but "Bulgarians are generally very tolerant of Jews, and there was barely any anti-semitism," he qualifies. “Occasionally I had to daven in school, because of the davening times, but everyone was generally very understanding." It was still a challenge keeping kosher and Shabbos, simply due to the lack of resources. Shechita, in particular is limited—“for about two months a year, we don’t eat fleishigs.”
But what Shmuel most longed for was having frum friends his age. “There weren’t many kids living a similar lifestyle to me, or who had similar values, in my community. Discussing matters of hashkafa…could only be done with rabbis, or whatever I could scratch off the internet.” He subscribed to Torah e-newsletters and read divrei Torah online, and although he did study on his own and attend the weekly shiurim in shul, “it was definitely not enough,” he said. “I was missing a lot.”
So as soon as he finished high school, he headed to Eretz Yisrael. He studied there for six years, the last two of which were spent at the Mir in Yerushalayim. He planned to remain there permanently, but during his last year at the Mir, “I started thinking about how I would raise a family and earn a respectable parnassa,” he says. “I needed a place where I could continue the high-level Jewish education I acquired in Eretz Yisrael—the yeshiva learning, which I cherish to this day—and, at the same time, be able to gain an education which would allow me to get to the goal of having a respectable profession.” Shmuel’s words are carefully measured, articulate—the result of having studied English as a foreign language since the first grade.
During his search for an institution that would satisfy both these requirements, he received several suggestions. “And the one that was most reasonable, that worked out the most…”—he pauses here to find the suitable English word—“was most…convenient...was Lander College.” After researching the school and contacting Rabbi Nathan, the rest is history.
LCM in a sentence: “You have everything under one roof—the beis medrash, dorms, and classrooms.” And, he adds, “it’s very refreshing to be among such a diverse crowd where everyone’s goals are basically the same—to go forward in life, build careers, and at the same time develop a connection to learning Torah.”
Biggest difference between Bulgaria and America: “When it comes to people, Europeans are generally more restrained, less forthcoming, whereas the Americans are much more outgoing…easier to start relationships with…friendly, accepting.” And—“living Jewishly is definitely much easier,” he says. “in terms of minyanim, communities, schools of all levels, chesed organizations…
Advice to new international students: Start applying for visas early. “It does take a long time until you get all your papers, fill out the forms, get an interview, and then actually receive the visa…”