I have a bit of a fascination with tiny Jewish communities in unexpected places. I know it’s random, but it’s just my thing. Having grown up in the Northeast US, where I’ve always enjoyed freedom of religion and been surrounded by large Jewish communities, I’m amazed when a community somewhere else in the world has survived the tests of time and persecution. Since being Jewish has always been a strong part of my identity, whenever I travel I investigate if there are any Jewish sites, museums, or synagogues to visit and make sure to fit them into my typically packed schedule. However, there is one experience that stands out for me above the rest.
While planning a solo trip to Greece in July 2012, I discovered that the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean has the oldest synagogue in Greece, with an attached museum telling the story of the 4,000-strong Jewish community that once thrived there. In addition, from a practical standpoint, Rhodes was accessible by plane, had a medieval old town and pretty beaches, and seemed like it would be a safe place for a lone female traveler. Time to book!
Then things got interesting. I discovered that the 30 Jews living on Rhodes today and other Rhodesli Jews who live in the US, Israel, and other parts of Greece gather on Rhodes annually to memorialize the entire Jewish community that was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1944. Incredibly, I would be visiting during that time. The schedule of events included Shabbat (Sabbath) services and dinner, a memorial event in the town’s central plaza, and an additional gathering in the town’s Jewish cemetery. I was immediately awestruck by the community’s dedication to preserving its memory. While I felt intrusive participating in the memorial events, I knew the opportunity to join a Shabbat service and dinner would be unforgettable and meaningful. I immediately sent an email to an address I saw on the website and crossed my fingers someone was monitoring the inbox and would be open to taking in a stray Jewish traveler from Los Angeles with no personal ties to Rhodes.
I felt my pulse quicken when I saw a response the very next day. I couldn’t believe it! I was warmly welcomed to join the service and dinner and even have a private tour of the museum if I wished. I immediately began to wonder if the usual Shabbat dinner of matzah ball soup, chicken, and kugel I was accustomed to would be replaced with grape leaves, Greek salad, and stuffed peppers.
The synagogue looked nothing like the Ashkenazi synagogue I grew up in. The main room had beautiful stone walls with wooden benches. Men and women sat separately on opposite sides of the room facing each other, with the pulpit in the center in traditional Sephardic style. The rabbi had flown in that morning from Athens, as the remaining Jewish community is too small to support a rabbi full-time.
I was immediately welcomed in and introduced to everyone – admittedly there was a fascination with the stray Angeleno – and ushered in to sit amongst the women. One woman asked me in broken English if I had a boyfriend – I guess Jewish mothering is a global phenomenon! While I didn’t understand the Greek parts of the service and the Hebrew melodies were very different from the ones I had grown up with, I had the chance to observe the scene in front of me and reflect on how grateful I was to be part of welcoming in a beautiful Shabbat evening on a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean with a community that insisted on solidarity. I may have come from 7,000 miles and a whole world away, but I felt like I was among my own. I truly couldn’t believe I was part of something so awe-inspiring.
Following services, it was time to eat. Again, some things are universally Jewish! I was not disappointed. There were in fact grape leaves and stuffed peppers, as well as challah, hummus, babaganoush, a variety of salads, several fish dishes, and lots of wine. I had the chance to speak with several families and learn about their relatives’ stories from before the war in times of prosperity, and after the war in times of rebuilding. I felt so grateful to be sharing this experience with them to honor the past and look to the future.
Just when I thought my experience couldn’t be any richer, some serious Greek dancing ensued. Circling, jumping, crouching, and everything you’ve seen in My Big Fat Greek Wedding! It was amazing to see the resilience and celebration of life following the horrific events of the past. I will never forget this remarkable experience with the Jewish community of Rhodes.
About the Author: Samantha has been traveling non-stop since studying abroad in Belgium while in college. While her favorite places include San Sebastian, Bali, Japan, and Santorini, her number one happy place is home in Los Angeles. Sam works in product development for a company that makes insulin pumps and glucose sensors for people with diabetes, and she is grateful for the company’s generous vacation policies that enable her travel habit. Find her on Facebook.