I am tired of people asking, "Are there Jews in Bosnia-Herzegovina?" The Jewish remnants of the Balkan War and siege of Sarajevo ought to be Jews we brag about.
I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina for two weeks last December as a volunteer teacher for communities - Jewish and non-Jewish alike - that lack the resources to regularly have educators visit from outside the country. Having participated in an exchange program through the Melikian Center of Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies at Arizona State University two years ago, I was invited back by a prominent member of the country's interfaith community. I found myself once again walking down the street, trying desperately not to fall into bomb craters in the snowy, unshoveled sidewalk, still unrepaired almost 15 years since the end of the war - because the country is too poor to repave and rebuild.
During the siege of Sarajevo, the Jews who could not or did not flee to Israel became the lifeline for non-Jewish citizens there - the Jewish community center was the depository of humanitarian aid to the city's residents, and in their unique and atypical position of being on neither side of the conflict, the Jews emerged as heroes who ran under fire to deliver food and medicine to the needy on both sides of the conflict.
For the Jews, a population of about 1,100 in six communities, staying meant sustaining. Staying, not leaving for Israel, meant rebuilding something from next to nothing amid a population described to me by a number of mental-health professionals and survivors of the war as "an entire country suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder." Leading members of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina have dedicated themselves to expanding a Jewish presence in this ravaged country, and are doing so through an extraordinary partnership with their counterparts in the Catholic, Muslim and Serbian Orthodox communities. The face of this partnership is the face of reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina and is known as the International Multicultural Interreligious Center (IMIC).
Some of the noblest, staunchest defenders of the Jewish people are the non-Jewish founders and members of IMIC, the organization that brought me to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The leaders of IMIC operate under the assumption that Jews will be part of their organization's every endeavor, and if anyone suggests or plans a program where Jews are not included, IMIC will not participate. Conversely, the assumption of IMIC was that I was not only there for the Jewish community, but also for all of the other religious communities and a handful of secular organizations, and so I spent time teaching and learning from all sorts of diverse groups and their constituents.
My schedule illustrated the strength of this partnership. Among my nearly dozen talks, I spoke on Jewish medical ethics to physicians and mental-health professionals in the Republica Serbska, where my lecture to mostly Muslim practitioners was housed in a building on the grounds of a Catholic monastery; my lecture on Judaism and human rights took place at the University of Sarajevo; and I taught about lost traditions of Jewish sexuality to Sarajevo's Jewish Community Youth Club.
I love to travel to new places and have had wonderful experiences in many countries. But Israel has always been my home away from home that I sorely miss for weeks after my return. I never imagined that I would have another home away from home. If I were offered a plane ticket anywhere in the world, I would make it a triangle fare and go back to Bosnia-Herzegovina. My first stop would be the Jewish community center kitchen, where relief was organized during the Balkan war, and where extraordinary meals and human services are provided to all now that there is peace. Then I would fly to Israel.
Many Jews assume that we are on our own, that we are the only ones who stand up for ourselves. But there are people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jews and non-Jews alike, who we can rely on. To quote the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, "Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew." As long as Bosnia-Herzegovnia has the IMIC, its Jews will never have that concern.
Marcie Lee is director of the Hillel Teaching Scholars Program for the training of religious school teachers and teaches at Arizona State University and the Bureau of Jewish Education. To read about her first experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina, see Day of anguish, day of joy," Jewish News, July 11, 2008. That story's sidebar, "Jewish presence has survived through centuries of strife," provides a history of the Jews in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Jewish tradition tells us that we are God's hands. The Jews of Bosnia-Herzegovina were God's hands to a war-torn country, and now the Arizona Jewish community can be God's hands to help them rebuild.
In Doboj, Bosnia-Herzegovina, a primary goal of the Jewish community is to build a public library. In order to receive that designation and receive public services, the community needs to acquire 5,000 books. Books on any subject are welcome, but Jewish books are desired most.
To donate books, contact Marcie Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-818-3790. Email is preferred. A donation of 50 cents per book is required for shipping purposes. Any leftover funds will be donated to the Bosnia-Herzegovina Jewish community.