The great Jewish historian of the Balkans, Solomon Abraham Rosanes, a native of Ruse, claimed that Jews settled in Bulgaria during the time of the first Temple (600 BC). Other Jewish historians trace the origin of Bulgarian Jewry to Jewish sailors and merchants who sailed with the Phoenicians in search of trade. Still others claim that the Jews arrived in Bulgaria during the reign of Alexander of Macedonia. It is certain that there were established Jewish settlements in the Balkans when St. Paul tried to preach in the synagogue in Salonika in the first century A.D. As the famous Bulgarian historian Gavril Katsarov wrote, “… the history of the Jews in Bulgaria does not begin in the Middle Ages. Before the Slavs came to the Danube, the Jews had roots in our Bulgarian soil”. If these historians are correct, then Judaism is the oldest continuing religious presence in Bulgaria.
The earliest archeological evidence we have for Jewish settlement in Bulgaria is a late 2nd century Roman gravestone discovered in Nikopol. The gravestone bears a menorah and mentions the Archsynagogus Joseph. The Jewish communities of Sofia, Vidin, Nikopol, and Silistra were established by Byzantine Jewish immigrants. Creating their own synagogue liturgy and Judeo-Greek language, the Romaniotes dominated Bulgarian Jewish life until the arrival of the Sephardim (Jews of Spanish origin) in the l5th century.
Khan Asparukh, the founder of the first Bulgarian state (681-1081) set a firm policy of toleration toward the Jews. Jewish life flourished in his kingdom. During the reign of Boris I (852-89), the Jews were even accused of proselytizing among the Bulgarians
During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185-1394), Jews were generally well treated and Jewish community life prospered. Bulgaria became a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing the Crusades, and Italian Jewish merchants were invited to revive the economy. During thc reign of Tsar Assen II (1241-18), Pope Gregory II complained that Bulgaria sheltered many Jews who lived in Bulgaria as equals. Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-71) married a Jewish woman named Sarah whose name upon her coronation as baptized was Theodora.
In 1396 the Bulgarian Kingdom was conquered by the Turks. The last Tsar of the Second Kingdom, Ivan Shishman, was the son of the “Jewish” Tsaritsa Theodora. For 500 years Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, a period known to this day as “The Yoke”. At the time of the conquest there were Jewish communities in Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Nikopol, Silistra, and Vidin. Jewish merchants from other parts of the Turkish Empire emigrated to Bulgaria and established communities in Pazardjik, Samokov, Kyustendil, and other trading centers. Jews were granted permission by the Turks to build synagogues, purchase land, and enter the professions. Jews soon became a major economic component in Bulgaria. It was during the latter part of the 15th century that the first Jewish refugees arrived in Bulgaria from Spain. Sephardic (Heb. Spanish) Jews reached Bulgaria after I494.
In 1523, the famous Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulkhan Arukh. the classic code of Jewish law, settled in Nikopol and founded a yeshiva (talmudic academy).
By the beginning of the 16th century the center of Bulgarian Jewish life was in Sofia. The community had a recognized rabbinic tribunal and was no longer dependent on rabbinic authorities in Istanbul
By the l9th century, the Ottoman Empire began to crumble and armed independence movements were established. In l878, Bulgaria fully accepted the Congress of Berlin guarantee of equal rights to the Jewish community. It was the Jewish fire brigade under Rabbi Almosnino, the Chief Rabbi of Sofia, that prevented Turkish soldiers from setting free to the city.
Bulgarian Jews entered the new independent Bulgaria as full citizens. The 1880 census reported a Jewish population of 20,500.
Bulgarian Jews enlisted in great numbers in both the Balkan wars (1912- 13) and World War I, far surpassing their percentage of the general population.
By 1934, there were 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria, fifty percent of whom lived in the Sofa area.
Most tourists visiting Bulgaria are now aware of the Bulgarian role in saving their Jews during World War II. The story of the salvation of Bulgarian Jewry is well known around the world. Many books, both scholarly and popular, have been written on the subject. In short, the facts are that the Jews within the borders of prewar Bulgaria, were saved from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps. This was unique in Europe. Unfortunately the salvation does not include the Jews under Bulgarian rule in Thrice and Macedonian.
The Zionist leadership began to organize mass emigration to Palestine and by 1948, 7,000 Bulgarian Jews had 1eft for Palestine. In spite of the protests of the Front leadership, the Communist government of Bulgaria permitted emigration of its Jewish citizens. To the credit of Bulgaria, this departure was fair and not vindictive. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 90 % of Bulgarian Jews emigrated.
Although Bulgaria was perhaps the closest ally to the Soviet Union, it never adopted the anti-Semitic policies of its neighbor. Antisemitism was a serious crime and was not tolerated.
On Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the Berlin Wall came down, reformers within the Communist Party, demanded and received changes in leadership. At the annual meeting, the Social, Cultural and Educational Organization of the Jews in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was dissolved. In its place a new community structure was created, The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”.
A democratic system was established to ensure representation of the 19 Jewish communities. Trying to establish a link with their own community traditions, the Organization now refers to itself as the Consistory of the Jews in Bulgaria, Shalom.
Shalom is successfully reviving Jewish cultural activities in Bulgaria.
Social Welfare Services remains a major concern for the Jewish Community which continues its vigilance against antisemitism.
The Jewish community presently numbers about 4,000. Sofa has approximately 2,500 Jews.
The Central Synagogue of Sofia has justly been described as the pride of all Bulgarian Jewry. It has symbolized the Jewish community of Bulgaria for almost a century. It is the largest Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) synagogue in Europe.
The religious life in Bulgaria is organizes by Central Israelite Religious council.