Rav Hayim Leiter
The Serbian Connection
My journey to Belgrade began a few weeks ago when I was in the states for my nephew’s Bris. While in Philadelphia, I missed a call from a local number. When I returned the call, I asked the woman who answered if someone was trying to get in touch with me there. After a quick back and forth she realized it was her husband, the rabbi of Belgrade, who wanted me to come to perform a Bris. I was calling Serbia. Even stranger than that: the family had a dedicated phone line in Belgrade that displays a Philadelphia area code. It turns out the rebbetzin is from my hometown.
After a good deal of back and forth, the Bris was scheduled for this past Sunday. The one hitch was that my Israeli passport was about to expire. When I went to the Interior Ministry to renew it they told me that the new passport would take three weeks to arrive. I remarked to the clerk that that was problematic because I was flying in a week. She simply gave me a form that allowed me to fly on my American passport alone. I mention this so that if anyone else is facing the same issue, you now know there’s an easy solution.
I flew Pegasus airlines through Turkey, one of the places not presently on the top of my list. In recent days, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has been strained, to say the least. But I had a few shocking moments on the trip. The first was at Ben Gurion when we needed to ride a bus to board the Pegasus plane. For those of us who remember the old airport and miss kissing the tarmac upon arrival, this was a blast from the past. I had no idea there were still airlines boarding on the tarmac. Why El Al ever gave this up to a Turkish company is beyond me.
I spent almost the whole trip wearing a baseball cap for fear of the run-ins I might have if I displayed my religion outwardly. But while in Turkey I learned it may not have been as unsafe as I had first thought.
As I was awaiting a connecting flight the gentleman sitting next to me asked for help connecting his tablet to the internet. He seemed sweet. As his open briefcase caught my eye, I thought I saw items which could be used for a circumcision. I couldn’t believe that there might be two mohalim ‘passing in the night’. Could he too be traveling to another country to perform a circumcision in the Muslim tradition? I had to ask.
It turns out that my new friend Mansour, as he is called, was not a Muslim mohel, but our conversation was interesting nonetheless. He was born in Iran seventy years ago and had spent time in prison there before immigrating to Vienna. I never learned of his profession but he was now on his way back to Iran to partake in a 2,000 kilometer bike ride. He jestfully asked if I wanted to join him. I thanked him and said, maybe another time. We laughed for a moment and I took the chance of telling him I’m enroute from Tel Aviv.
Within mere minutes we were discussing religion and philosophy through his broken English and my nonexistent German. He told me that there isn’t much religion in Iran anymore and that he thinks that’s a good thing. He said “You’re Yud (Jew), there are Christian, and Muslim, we are all equal. You’re a mensch, I’m mensch.” I couldn’t believe his choice of words, but I also couldn’t have agreed with him more.
My time spent in Belgrade was also eye opening. The Bris was held in the only shul that had survived the war. The rabbi of the community was born in Serbia and received Smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, right across the street from the Yeshiva where I received Smicha. Rabbi Asiel is a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a Sofer Stam (ritual scribe). I mentioned to him that between the two of us we are the ultimate in the Jewish tradition. The three skills one can hold to be known as a learned person are Shechitah, Sofrut, and Milah. So if you combine the two us, we’re pretty high on the list.
But things are not simple in Serbia. There is a great deal of tension both within and outside the Jewish community. The future is unclear. Rav Asiel was actually shot once and because of his leadership role, the possibility of its reoccurrence always looms over his head.
My brief stay in Belgrade reminded me of a few things I’ve always known– that the real Judaism is in the Galut (outside of Israel). Kashrut, for example, doesn’t come to life until you’re in the middle of nowhere. How hard is it for me in Jerusalem to choose between my 50 or so restaurant options right down the street. The real challenge comes when you’re faced with keeping kashrut and never having a restaurant to go to. And in Belgrade, the Asiel family is providing everything for their community. Beyond all the ritual needs, they seem to cater all the events from their kitchen. They are a full service Jewish center. I was in awe.
Rav Asiel and his family are truly holding down the fort for the Jews of Serbia. And as much as we feel threatened in Israel by our neighbors, my t ime in Belgrade reminded me that there is no place safe for a Jew. But I pray I’m wrong. I hope there will be more Mounsors in our midst soon because, as he said, we are all equal. We just need more people to realize that.
When I landed back at Ben Gurion airport after my 24 hour trip, it felt like I had been gone for months, and it wasn’t just because I had a lengthy layover in Turkey. Feeling at home in the safety and security of my country which allows all religions to express themselves freely, I did what I did the first time I visited. I stepped off the plane, on to the tarmac, and kissed the sacred ground of our homeland. Even if we can’t all be here, I hope Israel gives strength to families like the Asiels to continue doing their holy work in the four corners of the earth. May God bring them home speedily in our days.
This originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post