The tiny Balkan nation of Albania installed Shliach Rabbi Yoel Kaplan as its first chief rabbi. In a ceremony attended by Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar at the new Moshe Rabbeinu Synagogue in the capital city of Tirana, Kaplan, who also serves as Shliach of Thessaloniki in nearby Greece, assumed leadership of Albania’s more than 250 indigenous Jews.
According to Rabbi Kaplan, who was chosen for the position by the Rabbinical Centre of Europe and Prime Minister Salia Berisha, the ceremony – which coincided with the eight-day holiday of Chanukah – signaled a new chapter in Albania’s post-World War II Jewish history. While Jews have historically lived along its Adriatic shoreline since Roman times, many immigrated to Israel and the United States after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But a small contingent of businessmen and their families remained. Until now, the community has been without a shul to call their own.
“In the last few years, many have come back,” noted Kaplan. “Now, more than ever, they’ve needed a shul.”
In a meeting with the Rabbinical Centre of Europe in April, Berisha formally requested a chief rabbi on behalf of his Jewish constituents.
“The Jewish community would be welcome to practice its religion and promote its culture in Albania, like every other religion,” he assured.
The Rabbinical Centre, in turn, reached out to Kaplan, who for the past couple of years, has been nurturing connections with local Jews during his frequent visits to the country.
“The Rabbinical Centre of Europe’s mission is to assist any European Jewish communities, whether they are large of small, affiliated or non-affiliated,” Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, the council’s deputy director, told The Jerusalem Post. “Albanian Jewry has a long and illustrious history and the current community needs a spiritual leader to ensure its vitality and continuity.”
Amar’s presence at the ceremony coincided with a final leg of an official regional tour. He also stopped in Thessaloniki and Athens. Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, the Rebbe's Shliach to Milano, was an honored guest, as well.
Kaplan emphasized his gratitude to Sokol Paraini, a local leader of the Albanian Jewish community, for supporting the creation of the post. He also credited Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, for facilitating the position, and the Rohr Family Foundation, for providing the financial backing of the Tirana synagogue and the chief rabbinate.
Kaplan, who has stepped up his visits to the country, is already planning to open a kosher restaurant.
“We are here for whatever the Jews need,” he said.