During Lag B’Omer last year in Montenegro, which is roughly east of Rome across the Adriatic Sea, the Jewish community was eager to gather around a bonfire and put the pandemic behind it. This year will be even more festive, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, the Balkan country’s chief rabbi and senior Chabad representative, told JNS.
“This year will be a special occasion because we are bringing a new Sefer Torah from Israel,” Edelkopf told JNS.
The Montenegro community will welcome the Torah, which was made specifically for the community, with a parade, said Edelkopf, 45, a Los Angeles native who moved to the community in 2017 with his wife, Chani, who grew up in Kfar Chabad in Israel.
The local Jewish community, which numbers about 500, consists of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, including those who speak Ladino and Yiddish. “There isn’t a place in the world which doesn’t have Jews,” Edelkopf said. (He and his wife were based in Sochi, Russia, prior to their appointment in Montenegro.)
Of Lag B’Omer, which he admits doesn’t get the same press as Yom Kippur or Passover, Edelkopf said: “It is a very simple and special holiday.”
The holiday, which is the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer between the holidays of Passover and Sukkot, is a festive marker of the end of a plague that affected students of the sage Rabbi Akiva.
Jewish life in what is today Montenegro dates back to ancient times, and there was a community in the Middle Ages. The 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi was exiled to present-day Montenegro.
Prior to World War II, only a handful of Jews, about 30, lived in Montenegro. Some 300 Jews survived the Holocaust by hiding in northern and coastal Montenegro towns.
In 2006, Montenegro gained its independence from Serbia. Its current population is more than 600,000. The country has two synagogues, according to Edelkopf—one in Podgorica (which he leads) and another in Budva, which very recently welcomed its own Chabad couple, Rabbi Leizer and Mushki Ehrenfeld. A third synagogue is planned in the country, according to Edelkopf.
Ivana Ilickovic, a member of the Montenegro Jewish community, told JNS that there were Jewish activities in the country prior to Chabad’s arrival, but only visiting rabbis.
“It is nice to have a permanent rabbinical presence and see a sense of continuity,” she said.
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