Let’s start by clearing one thing up: Rabbi Gabriel Negrin is not, as has been erroneously reported elsewhere, the Chief Rabbi of Greece. For historical reasons, the Jewish community of Greece has not had a Chief Rabbi since the Holocaust.
Since January 1, Rabbi Negrin has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Athens. At the age of twenty-six, he is the spiritual head of the largest community in Greece. 3,000 of the country’s 5,000 Jews live in the capital city.
“I don’t think there are many young people who say their dream is to be a rabbi,” Negrin told eJewishPhilanthropy, discussing his education. “I was religious – I was shomer mitzvot. I was involved in the life of the synagogue with the former rabbi, studying with him. The community saw that and proposed the study. I was sent to Jerusalem to study as a rabbi; after completing the rabbinical studies in Jerusalem, I came back.”
I met Rabbi Negrin on a Friday morning in February at the Athens Jewish Community School, which he attended as a child. After our meeting, at around midday, he held Kabbalat Shabbat with the children of the school, prior to officiating over the Sephardi Orthodox service later that day at the Beth Shalom Synagogue in the Keramikos district of downtown Athens. During our conversation, we discussed his approach to Orthodoxy and the importance of Diaspora.
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What are the challenges of being the Rabbi of Athens?
To be a rabbi in a small community that has needs is very challenging. When you are coming from that community, those challenges seem so sweet that you want to deal with them. You have to help. As a Jew, you want to give back to the community.
First of all, because of the economic situation, pastoral work has increased a lot. There are so many people who want to see the rabbi and you have to give them the spiritual balance that they need. Then there’s education. We are a minority and Judaism is based on education. We have to give to people a reason, every moment, for them to be proud to be Jewish.
As a rabbi, I’m representing something different from the general society. No-one wants to be different. I have to give an explanation and reason for that difference and make it beautiful so people want to engage and re-engage with Judaism.
What is it like to be Jewish in a Greek Orthodox country?
To be a Jew in Greece is much easier and more interesting than in other countries. We don’t have the problems they have in France, or the Netherlands, or Sweden. I understand that, at times, the church here has been quite anti-Semitic, but today I feel the exact opposite. As a university student, I had a very interesting experience as a religious Jew. My best friends were religious – Christian Orthodox. When I was studying in Jerusalem, one of my best friends was an assistant to the Greek Patriarchate. The church is quite open to Jews and tries to understand Judaism.
How would you characterize the relationship between Greek Jews and Judaism?
You cannot call the Greek community a traditional community nor secular nor Orthodox – it is a Jewish community, with most people engaged with Judaism in some way. Throughout history, the Sephardic community – especially in Greece – and the Romaniote community were not formed in the same way as the Ashkenazi communities in Europe. The Sephardic and Romaniote communities were always more welcoming, and I believe the Greek community is very open. They were respectful of tradition but the synchronization of Jewish law and the Jewish way of life with modern life is one of the priorities for Greek Jews.
You have been described as a liberal Orthodox rabbi.
I remember my first days in the yeshiva. I had colleagues from all around the world and with all levels of Orthodoxy. I couldn’t engage with any of it, and the main example of this was with my kippa. I like to match my kippa with my clothes – it’s how I grew up. When I was in the yeshiva, one day I was wearing black clothes so therefore I wore a black Haredi kippa, and people spoke to me and tried to make friends and so on. The next day, I wore navy blue pants with a blue kippa, made of the same material, so a different part of the yeshiva wanted to talk to me. The day after that, I wore something else but with a knitted kippa so a third part of the yeshiva stopped to talk to me. After a week or two, someone said to me, ‘You have to decide. What are you? Are you Haredi, dati-leumi, modern Orthodox?’ I couldn’t understand the question. I just said, ‘I thought I was a Jew.’
Of course, as a rabbi, I am in love with the Torah. That means that I have a very close relationship with the halacha and my life is impressed every day by it. But the difference is I live through it and not with it. And, maybe I was described as liberal Orthodox because I believe the role of a Jew should be outside and not closed into a ghetto. Romaniote Jews never had ghettos. We always lived outside with everybody else. Jews should be a part of wider cultural life and not forget how, with others, we created the basis of modern European art and culture.
Did studying in Jerusalem make you realize some essential difference between Greek Judaism and Israeli Judaism (or other forms of Judaism)?
I started to understand the problem best expressed by Rabbi Sacks [Emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom] that it is as dangerous to go away from the center as it is to go away from Judaism at all.
How does being liberal Orthodox work in relationship to the halacha?
Judaism has always worked with interpretation. So, the halacha is the halacha, but the halacha has many parts and many expressions. Most of the time, we see the expression we like, but not the whole thing. You can find a solution though seeing the whole thing: the historical and sociological aspect. If you don’t engage the halacha with history and sociology, the point is lost. You have to give life to the law.
The Athens Jewish community is in danger of losing its young people. What are you doing to engage them?
In the 1900s, many Greek Jews left because of the economic crisis. It’s why we have a Greek Jewish community in the United States. So, the rabbis added a prayer to the morning prayers which said, ‘Protect me from the galut’, but the galut meant from Greece. I don’t think we are in a position where we have to add that prayer today.
I am trying to be active amongst the youth and there for them when they need me. I am trying to reinforce their Greek Jewish identity. But, they are not leaving for romantic reasons. It is clearly about the need to find a job, so I am not in a position to help with that. I will not convince them to leave or to stay.
For me, it is very sad. Of course, Israel is our spiritual homeland and when someone makes aliya, it is a happy occasion, but on the other hand, when you are talking about Diaspora, we no longer talk about galut. Diaspora is a Greek word, it means ‘spreading the seed’. We are here for that.
So Diaspora is a necessary, important, and worthy thing – to be Greek and Jewish.
Of course, not just in Greece but all over the world.
Why is it important to be Jewish?
We would need another day to answer that.
I am so lucky to be able to keep the heritage of my grandfather and father alive through me – I am the representative of their pure monotheism. On the other hand, Judaism is not just a religion. I am also a representative of Jewish history, culture, and social presence in this world and what Jews given to the evolution and development of humanity. It is a huge responsibility and it is very difficult. Sometimes, you disengage from it. But it is the most important thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.