by Smadar Bar-Akiva
Before scrolling down to the bottom of this article to find the answer, I want to share with you with you what we learned on a recent World Confederation of JCCs Study Seminar to the Jewish Community of Greece.
While focusing our visit on what it means to be a young Jew in Greece today, one cannot ignore the exchange of philosophical, theological, social, cultural and economic ties between Jews and Greeks, dating back some 2500 years.
True, the interaction between the cultures was not always fortunate. While the Maccabees revolt followed the occupation of the land of Israel, the elite of the Jewish population had become Hellenized. Greek philosophy, aesthetics and language permeated the intricate web of Jewish life, causing part of the population to accuse the other part of abandoning their faith. This conflict, sometimes armed, other times verbal, continued well into the Middle Ages, when Christianity, the successor to Hellenism, took over.
The golden age of Greek Jews began at the end of the 15th century, when a great influx of Jewish Sephardic refugees from the expulsion of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 started settling in the same towns where Jewish congregations existed. They concentrated in Salonika and its surroundings. Salonika was coined “Jerusalem of the Balkans” where the city port was closed on Shabbat due to the large number of Jewish fishermen. It also became an international center of Jewish printing where the famous Soncino Talmud was printed. In the following years there was an ebb and flow of Jewish life depending on current events.
But the biggest disaster was Nazi occupation during World War II. A vibrant community almost vanished when some 70,000 Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust – 80% of the total Jewish population and 97% of the Jews of Salonika alone. Only very few managed to survive by hiding in the mountains with the Greek resistance, or in houses in the islands and faraway places that Christian friends provided. When the war ended, coming out of the ashes, survivors built their life afresh. Today they number in total some 5000.
We were therefore so moved when Julia Sasson, a young adult from Salonika, told us that she feels lucky and proud. “Proud of a glorious Jewish past, while also remembering its tragic times. My friends tease me when I get so passionate about Salonika and they don’t understand why. But when you are a Jew and you have grown up in Salonika you can only be proud and happy about that.” These sentiments drive her to build a bright future. Julia was honest about describing the present economic situation and the unemployment problems that force many to leave and look for job opportunities elsewhere – to Israel and other countries. But she strongly feels that those who do stay try to do their best in order to maintain – and even improve – the Jewish community that they know and love. Julia believes that this can be achieved only if they will be open-minded and sensible to the new reality and adapt themselves and the community.
So what does adaptation entail?
Minos Moissis, the recently elected President of the Jewish Community of Athens, tells us that it means first and foremost dealing with diminishing resources. As Greece is undergoing the most severe recession in Europe in times of peace, the community is suffering from a 40% decline in income from real estate (the main source of the communities’ income.) Unemployment reaches sky rocket rates and on top of it, there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism and political tensions due to the rise of the Golden Dawn extremist party.
For the Athens Jewish Community this means first and foremost continuing to invest in Jewish education – formal and informal. A state of the art Jewish school continues to provide Jewish education to elementary school children, the Jewish camp organized by the Jewish Community of Saloniki is thriving and the JCC is preparing for a whole set of new programs and activates for the coming year.
Perhaps Minos is inspired by his own personal story. Born in Larissa, Greece, his house was demolished in the severe earthquake in the 50’s. At that time, JDC helped rebuild his family house where they still live today. Fast forward to recent times, JDC, once again, helped the Jewish community by providing loans that enable the doors of the Jewish institutions to remain open.
Visiting Jewish institutions in both Salonika and Athens, we met dedicated leaders – most of them volunteers – who are channeling their efforts to ensure not only the mere survival of the community but also its growth.
We were deeply moved when we found out that not only did we learn a lot during our seminar but we also made a difference. Monis Halegua, the President of the JCC of Athens, writes to us upon our return:
“Thank you so much for your visit. It really touched our hearts. Your warm feelings made us understand that we are not alone in this world. Let’s promise, that this was your first visit to Greece of many others to come. Let’s promise that we will be in touch and get inspired from each other. Let’s promise that we will go on against all odds .You must know, we feel much stronger after your visit to our small community.”
I would therefore like to claim that continuing the flame of Jewish life in Greece, is a modern day miracle of Hanukkah.
And as for the answer to the question. Sensitive to the general community they live in; the Jews in Greece prefer to speak about enemies – in general – when they teach their children the story of Hanukkah and make a clear distinction between ancient Greeks to those of today.
Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) – an umbrella organization representing more than 1,100 JCCs worldwide. WCJCC recently led a delegation of 24 members from USA, Mexico, France and Israel on a Study Seminar to the Balkans – Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. Smadar can be reached at: [email protected]
Historical background based, in part, on an article written by Yaacov Ben Mayor.