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Breathing New Life Into Greece’s Small but Historic Jewish Community

Gabriel Negrin, 25, the new head rabbi of Athens, will soon become the country’s chief rabbi—with an eye on renewing traditions

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Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, 2013. (Courtesy of Gabriel Negrin)
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Growing up in Athens, Gabriel Negrin revered his grandfather and the elders in the Greek capital’s Jewish community, who chanted prayers in distinctive Greek melodies. “Some little boys looked up to Superman or Batman,” he said. “For me, it’s always been old Jewish men. They were my heroes.” When Negrin was a little boy, his love for Jewish customs and his tendency to mimic the older pious men earned him the nickname Ravinakos, Greek for “little rabbi.”

Now 25, that “little rabbi” is preparing to become Greece’s chief rabbi. This month, he will take over as the official head rabbi of Athens, officiating at Beth Shalom, the largest functioning synagogue in the country’s largest Jewish community. After a five-month transition period, Greece’s current Chief Rabbi Isaac Mizan will retire and Negrin will officially be named chief rabbi of the country, representing the community formally to the government and at various global Jewish events.

Greece has an illustrious Jewish past stretching back thousands of years, but today there is little Jewish activity in the country. The Holocaust decimated the Jewish community—once numbering 90,000 in the city of Thessaloniki alone—and the country’s oft-reported economic difficulties, which have stirred civil unrest, have not helped matters much in recent years. But Negrin’s appointment offers renewed hope for Greece’s small Jewish community, which now numbers just over 5,000.

“I’m very excited to revive the Greek Jewish tradition, and also to renew it,” he said, “to make it work for people today, who are living a modern life.”

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Negrin’s studies began at an early age. While his peers at the local Athens Jewish elementary school saw themselves primarily as Greek, he was motivated to study more about his Judaism. Building on the basics he learned at home and at school, he began a quest for deeper knowledge. “Thank God, I met Rabbi Google,” he joked. The Internet and books he ordered online were a major source for Jewish information in his formative years. Eventually, Negrin sought out elderly Jewish scholars who remained in the once-active Jewish communities of Thessaloniki, Chalkida, and Athens. Former Chief Rabbi Yaakov Arar, now retired and living in Israel, became a close mentor. Negrin found and began studying rare texts on Greek Jewish legal responsa and the observance of local customs. A musician since an early age, Negrin also took a special interest in studying and preserving Greek cantorial music, even recording community elders chanting so he could pass on the dying musical tradition.

Four years ago, the president of the council of Athens’ Jewish community approached him with the idea that he take on the chief rabbi role—representing Greece’s largest community, the chief rabbi is traditionally chosen by the council. Negrin agreed on the condition that he be able to finish sound-engineering studies in Crete and then study for ordination for three years in Israel. After a vote and approval by the 10-person religious affairs committee of the board, he began his studies, completing his ordination this year.

For the last few years, while studying for ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Jerusalem, Negrin, who is single, has been shuttling back and forth on the two-hour flight between Israel and Athens and functioning as a Jewish educator for the community. Before committing to his new role, Negrin also personally visited with all the elderly rabbinic figures still residing in various Greek cities and received their blessings.

The liberal Orthodox rabbi wants to infuse Greek Jews with pride, with a particular focus on reacquainting them with local customs. Although the native Athenian speaks Greek with the latest slang and feels at ease chatting over beers with his peers, his true passion lies in showing others the beauty of Greek-Jewish culture. Negrin has been embraced by his future congregants at Beth Shalom, many of whom see him as a person to whom they can relate. Ricky Vidal, who moved to Athens from Israel in 1972 and manages Gostijo, a two-year-old kosher restaurant in the trendy Psiri district, believes Jewish community life in Athens could use the kind of revival that Negrin envisions. While in the ’70s and ’80s, young families met at a local Jewish community center and socialized together, that began to decline in the ’90s and has never recovered, she said. Today, many youth are distant from all Jewish practice and identity, and despite a popular Athens-based Chabad rabbi originally from Israel, Rabbi Mendel Handel, and several functioning synagogues, the community lacks an organic center. “People need to learn that they can be proud to be both Greek and Jewish. It isn’t one or the other,” said Vidal.

Rabbi Negrin, left, before a lecture at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, 2013
Rabbi Negrin, left, before a lecture at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, 2013

Today the Greek Jewish community is small—with 3,000 in Athens, 2,000 in Larissa, 700 in Thessaloniki and several smaller communities in islands such as Rhodes and Crete. But, from as early as 540 B.C.E. until the Holocaust, Greece was a large and important center of Jewish life with a reputation for being both cosmopolitan and devout. That makes sense given its diverse populations, which include Romaniote Jews, who have been in Greece for 2,000 years; Sephardim, who arrived after the expulsion from Spain in 1492; and Ashkenazim, arriving in waves from the ninth century on. “Greek culture has historically been multiethnic and open, and so its Jewish culture followed suit,” explained Negrin. He adds that Greek philosophy was traditionally studied by local Jews and contrasts this liberal attitude with the position by some Orthodox elements that have decried the Greek interest in aesthetics as blasphemous.

In the 1600s, Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika) became one of the largest Jewish communities in the world and was known as “ir v’em beyisrael,” metropolis and mother of Israel. By 1900, there were about 90,000 Jews, more than half of the town’s population, with numerous synagogues, Jewish schools, and communal institutions. “Today, when I tell people I am a Jew from Greece, they look at me as exotic and that’s so wrong because Greece was such an important Jewish center. I want to continue that great line of Greek-Jewish tradition and modernize it,” Negrin said.

One of his major areas of focus will be Jewish education. The Athens Jewish school has a good reputation, but he wants to fill in some of the gaps, so that youth are not only knowledgeable about their heritage but are, as he puts it, “freaking proud” to be Jewish. As such, he puts a premium on offering Jewish experiences, not just information. For example, he will teach youngsters how to blow a shofar, how to sing forgotten Greek Jewish songs, and even show them how Jewish ritual slaughter is performed. While studying for ordination in Jerusalem, he used Skype to help prepare young congregants for their bar mitzvahs, assigning the films Fiddler on the Roof and The Believer as required viewing for all his teen students. “I want to show them that music, food, singing, dancing, how you talk and act are all parts of being Jewish. It is so much more than a set of laws; it is a way of life,” he explained. When it comes to Jewish observance, he sometimes has some tough calls to make. When congregants who live farther away from synagogue ask him if they should skip services or drive, he has learned to be diplomatic: “On the one hand, I tell them, driving is not allowed on the Shabbat, but on the other hand, I tell them that I really love having them at services. I don’t want to push anyone away.”

Negrin’s first order of business is to start an evening education program for children and adults. It will function as a “Sunday school,” he explained, but still give people time to spend with their families on the weekend. He also aims to create a chorus to train people to participate in the Greek, Ladino, and Hebrew responsive readings during prayers. “Right now, I’m the only one who knows how to do it, and I’d love everyone to get involved.”

As Negrin begins his tenure, he’s trying to balance the contemporary needs of his congregants with his commitment to reviving ancient roots. He looks forward to adding some technological tools to current administrative practices and some contemporary tunes to the liturgy, even including Ashkenazi favorites on occasion. However, he’s equally dedicated to reviving forgotten Greek-Jewish customs such as the granting of a certificate of circumcision called Alef to each infant on the occasion of their brit milah and ensuring youngsters know how to sing the famous Ladino hymn “Quando el Rey Nimrod.”

Sometimes in his zeal for reconstructing the past, he outdoes his elders. His relentless study of local Jewish customs has made him such an expert that when some of the old folks say they don’t remember following a specific custom he’s unearthed, he’s often prepared with a source proving it was once observed: “I tell them, you might not remember doing it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done this way,” he said, grinning. In fact, Negrin has become so knowledgeable on all things Greek and Jewish that he can happily expound on topics as diverse as Hellenism in ancient Israel, Alexander the Great’s relationship with the Jews, and the works of Greco-Jewish philosopher Philo. He’s even planning a lecture series on Philo’s Greek-Jewish identity and its applications for a modern blended culture. His broad base of knowledge is also helping cement a growing relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, with whom he meets regularly.

But as he takes on his new position, Negrin will be working with other Jewish leaders as well. Chabad’s Handel and his wife Nechama have been popular mainstays in the community for 12 years. They hold regular classes and children’s programming, Shabbat meals for locals and guests, and holiday occasions that accommodate 200 or more people. Two years ago, Chabad expanded and opened Gostijo, a large and elegant kosher restaurant, in a converted nightclub. Although consultants suggested that they’d make more profits with a kosher deli, Handel and the community chose a menu of Greek and Sephardic foods in keeping with the community’s growing pride in its heritage. Today, the restaurant has become a popular destination for diverse types of travelers and is rated fourth among 1,674 Athens restaurants on Trip Advisor. “We get everybody: non-Jewish locals, travelers of every kind, and Jews who keep kosher,” said Handel.

Among the visitors are also a new crop of Orthodox Jewish travelers who no longer want to make do with crackers and vegetables while abroad. To cater to this crowd, the restaurant provides a range of kosher on-the-go options, so people can get kosher food delivered to their hotels. However, according to Handel, the space serves the local community as well, with lots of bar and bat mitzvahs and holiday meals taking place there.

Both Handel and restaurant manager Vidal say that Athens is increasingly on the map as a Jewish travel destination. The country’s well-known economic problems have meant more affordable travel deals to the city, and this has increased its interest for Jewish vacationers as well. On Passover, several hundred visitors, including many Israelis, join Seders both in major cities and on nearby islands.

Vidal, however, is disappointed that while Jewish travelers come to enjoy bouzouki music at all-night tavernas or check in at luxury resorts on nearby islands, they rarely tour Athens, and so they miss out on discovering the area’s Jewish treasures, including ruins of ancient synagogues near the Acropolis and on nearby island Aegina.

“We would love to welcome more Jewish travelers at the local synagogue and Jewish museum,” said Negrin, who is pinning his hopes on more active connections between his community and Jews around the world. “Diaspora is a Greek word, and it means spreading seeds. I don’t believe the Jewish people are in exile anymore. We need a strong center of Judaism in Israel, but we also need to spread Jewish messages throughout the world. That’s my hope for our community’s future—that we can be a part of that effort.”

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Breathing New Life Into Greece’s Small but Historic Jewish Community

Gabriel Negrin, 25, the new head rabbi of Athens, will soon become the country’s chief rabbi—with an eye on renewing traditions

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