10 June 2022

‘Something is changing’ in
the synagogues and Jewish
sites throughout Greece

Monastirioton is one of the two remaining synagogues in Thessaloniki, where the Jewish community has a continued presence throughout the city’s 2,300-year history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

A number of new books dealing with Jewish heritage have been published in recent months, in several countries and in several languages. One of these books highlighted in recent weeks by Jewish Heritage Europe is Η Συναγωγή (The Synagogue) by the architect and urban planner Elias Messinas, published in April by the Infognomon publishing house in Athens.

Elias Messinas undertook the first ever architectural survey and study of the synagogues of Greece in 1993. Inspired by earlier researchers, he felt the need ‘to document the small number of synagogues that survived the destruction of the Shoah.’

His new book, The Synagogue is his third book on the synagogues of Greece, following two previous books, The Synagogues of Greece (Bloch, 2011) and The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Gavrielides, 1997).

On this Friday evening, his new book and his lifetime passion brings to mind my visits to synagogues and Jewish sites throughout Greece, including Athens, Thessaloniki, Crete, Rhodes, Kos and Corfu.

Unlike Messinas’s previous books, his new book presents the historic and architectural background of the synagogues, and also describes his experience of travelling from city to city, and his effort to preserve the Jewish memory, through surveys, interviews and meetings with local people and Jews, some of whom have since died. He also includes his actual surveys of the synagogues of Greece, some of which have been demolished since he first surveyed them.

The Romaniotes or Greek-speaking Jewish communities have been in Greece since antiquity, in cities such as Ioannina and Halkis. Sephardic communities were established after 1492 in important Jewish centres such as Thessaloniki, and throughout Greece – from Corfu and Rhodes to Crete.

In the Holocaust, 87% of the Jewish community in Greece died were murdered, and the destruction took a heavy toll in Jewish heritage as well. Synagogues, libraries, community buildings, Jewish schools and Jewish clubs were demolished or taken over by other organisations. In Thessaloniki, important synagogues were demolished, and in November 1943, the ancient Jewish cemetery of the city was plundered, valuable marble tombstones were purloined for building material, and some tombstones are still found in private courtyards.

Kanaris Konstantinis of the Hellenic Post and a representative of the newly established Central Board of Jewish Communities, travelled throughout Greece in the mid-1940s and documented the state of the Jewish communities in the early years of reconstruction after the Holocaust.

Nicholas Stavroulakis, former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and photographer Timothy deVinney undertook the first survey of Jewish sites in Greece in the 1980s, and documented the synagogues and Jewish sites, some of which have since been lost.

<<Η Συναγωγή>> (‘The Synagogue’) by Elias Messinas was published in April by Infognomon in Athens

Elias Messinas graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and spent two years in architectural practice in New York. Then, in 1993, he undertook the first-ever architectural survey and study of the synagogues of Greece.

The project began as a private endeavour but has become an important historic resource, described very vividly in his new book. He describes the historic and architectural background of the synagogues and his surveys of the synagogues.

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki decided in 2014 to renovate the city’s two remaining synagogues, Monastirioton (1926) and Yad Lezikaron (1984). The renovations included the restoration of the interiors and exteriors, new furnishings, upgrading systems and improving accessibility.

The reinstallation of the Ten Commandments in marble at the top of the arch of the front façade of Monastirioton was a renovation highlight, thanks to earlier research on historic synagogues. In Yad Lezikaron, the highlight was restoring the historic heichal dating from 1921 and belonging originally to the Sarfati synagogue demolished after World War II.

Through his initiatives, synagogues have been restored in Komotini in northern Greece and in Trikala in central Greece, where two bimot survive, a unique example of two traditions surviving side-by-side in the same synagogue: the Romaniote bimah against the western wall, and the Sephardi bimah in the centre.

He was also involved in preserving and protecting the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue, dating from the 4th century CE and still standing in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum of Aegina.

Messinas was consulted on the restoration of the synagogue on the island of Kos, north-west of Rhodes last year. The synagogue was built ca 1936 under Italian rule, after the older synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake in 1933. The synagogue was abandoned after the deportation of the Jewish Community in 1944, and was later bought by the city council and turned into a cultural centre.

Until recently, the closest functioning synagogue was the 16th century Shalom synagogue in in the Jewish quarter of the old city in nearby Rhodes. But as Kos became popular with a growing number of Jewish tourists choose Kos, the growing need for a functioning synagogue was identified. Now there are plans to adapt the interior of the synagogue to use for Jewish worship once again.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post recently, Elias Messinas says ‘something is changing in Greece.’ He says ‘Jewish heritage sites once abandoned or demolished or serving other uses, are now slated for reconstruction and reuse as synagogues, nearly 80 years after the Holocaust.’

Shabbat Shalom

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bruce Kent (1929-2022): a friend
and a life-long peace activist

In the back row (right) in Roebuck House with Bruce Kent (front right) and Sean MacBride and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the early 1980s

Patrick Comerford

Bruce Kent, the world-known peace activist and retired Catholic priest, has died at age of 92 after a short illness.

I have been friends with Bruce Kent for almost 50 years since we first met at a peace conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, in 1976. In recent years, he was the Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and I have been President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND).

Bruce went to school in Stonyhurst and spent his conscription years in the Royal Tank Regiment before completing a law degree at Brasenose College, Oxford. He was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Westminster, and between 1958 and 1987 he worked in several London parishes, as chaplain to the University of London (1966-1974) and a chaplain to Cardinal Heenan.

When I first met Bruce in 1976, he had become a monsignor and was active in Pax Christi, Christian CND the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and War on Want. He was the chair of CND in 1977-1979, general secretary of CND (1980-1985) and chair again (1987-1990). In those years, he was one of the most vocal critics of Margaret Thatcher’s military and nuclear policies when public opposition to the deployment of Trident and cruise missiles was escalating.

I was involved in CND during those years, and for many years sat with Bruce on the council of CND. In those years, I was chair, secretary and vice-chair of Irish CND and Christian CND at different times. We spoke together at rallies and protests throughout Britain and Ireland in those heady days, icluding a large anti-war rally in Hyde Park at the height of the Falklands War in 1982.

Bruce was often my guest when he visited Dublin, and on one memorable evening we shared dinner with the Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sean MacBride, who was President of Irish CND before me, at his home in Roebuck House.

Bruce stepped back from the priesthood in 1987. Despite rumours that Cardinal Basil Hume had tried to stop his involvement in politics, he insisted he never applied for laicisation, nor was he ever laicised.

In later years he continued to return to Ireland regularly. When the future President Michael D Higgins was honoured as the first recipient of the Sean MacBride Peace Prize, Bruce was present at the ceremony in the Mansion House in Dublin in 1992.

That year, Bruce stood as the Labour candidate in Oxford West and Abingdon, but came third.

Bruce From 1985-1992, he succeeded the late Sean MacBride as President of the International Peace Bureau. We met in Dublin again when the council of the IPB met in Ireland in 2012 for the first time in its over 100-year history. He was honoured with the IPB Sean MacBride Peace Award in 2019.

On hearing of Bruce’s death, Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, said Kent transformed the scope and confidence of the anti-nuclear movement beyond all recognition. ‘His leadership of CND in the 1980s was the embodiment of integrity, creativity and sheer determination.’

Professor Paul Rogers of the University of Bradford and President of the Movement for the Abolition of War, said he was an utterly determined advocate for peace, and ‘a relentless campaigner against the idiocy of nuclear weapons for more than 50 years.’ He added: ‘He never let up and was forever optimistic and inspiring, even at the most difficult of times.’

Bruce died on Wednesday. At the time of his death, he was a vice-president of Pax Christi and emeritus president of the Movement for the Abolition of War. He was an honorary fellow of Brasenose College and in the past year he and Valerie Flessati were jointly awarded the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Cross for Ecumenism.

Bruce Kent and Valerie Flessati were married in 1988 and lived in Harringay, North London. He would have turned 93 later this month (22 June 2022). He is survived by Valerie, his sister Rosemary Meakins and his sister-in-law Ruth Kent.

Praying with the Psalms in Pentecost:
10 June 2022 (Psalm 107)

‘Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters’ (Psalm 107: 23) … fishing boats at the Quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections from the seasons of Lent and Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 107:

Psalm 107 is the first psalm in Book 5 (Psalms 107-150), the closing book in the Hebrew psalter. This is one of the longer psalms, and has 43 verses. It is sometimes known by its Latin name Confitemini Domino. In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this psalm is counted as Psalm 106.

Psalms 106 and Psalm 107 are closely connected together, and the division of the fourth and fifth books does not correspond to any difference of source or character, as is the case in the other books.

Psalm 107 is a song of thanksgiving to God, who has been merciful to his people and gathered all who were lost. It is beloved of mariners because of its reference to ships and to the sea (verse 23).

Although the exact timing of the writing of Psalm 107 is uncertain, it may have been written at a time of increased union among the people during the reign of King David (1010-970 BCE).

This is considered one of Israel’s historical psalms, along with Psalm 106 and many of the royal psalms, among others. The overall outline of the historical psalms is to tell a story of a God who accomplishes ‘wonderful works’ (verse 8), although the Israelites, his chosen people, have proved faithless.

In the psalmist’s assessment, acts of infidelity often seem to correspond to an eventual awe-inspiring work of mercy from the Lord. The psalm also includes several specific themes that emphasise the general tone of praise and thanksgiving for God.

Psalm 107 displays an overall regularity. The line lengths are different, but the size of the original sectional divisions is pleasingly even. The theme of the psalm moves forward from section to section.

Psalm 107 is divided into 43 verses and is one of the longer psalms in the Bible. In the Masoretic Hebrew text, there are seven inverted nuns (׆). The words ‘Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind’ appear as a refrain in verses 8, 15, 21 and 31.

It may be divided into seven sections, each section having a related but distinct theme:

1, verses 1-3: this is a general introduction, in which the Lord is said to gather ‘the redeemed … from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south’ verses 2, 3).

Following this, the next four sections address individuals who ‘wandered in desert wastes’ (verse 4), ‘sat in darkness and in gloom’ (verse 10), ‘were sick through their sinful ways’ (verse 17), and ‘went down to the sea in ships’ (verse 23). Each of these locational descriptors corresponds to a cardinal direction mentioned in verse 3.

2, verses 4-9: the desert wastes in verse 4 seem to indicate a ‘great, eastern desert’ that might be beat down upon by the sun, which rises in the east.

3, verses 10-16: in the opposing, western direction, where the sun sets, the people are said to sit ‘in darkness and in gloom’ (verse 10). The correlation depicted in this section between darkness and helplessness – apart from the aid of the Lord – harkens back to the earlier descriptions of Abraham (see Genesis 15: 12).

4, verses 17-22: throughout early Hebrew history, north was thought to be the direction most associated with evil and iniquity, thus adding emphasis to the direction of north’s correspondence to the fourth stanza, beginning with ‘some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction’ (verse 17).

5, verses 23-3: in the orientation of the region that Israel occupied at the time of Psalm 107, to the south lay the sea, directly paralleling the beginning of the fifth section, ‘some went down to the sea in ships’ (verse 23).

6, verses 33-38: Psalm 107 is, above all, a hymn commemorating the power of God. Despite the transgressions of the people, the Lord forgives them. The psalm elaborates on this theme, going on to say that the Lord ‘turns a desert into pools of water … and there he lets the hungry dwell’ He ‘turns a desert into pools of water … and there he lets the hungry live’ (verses 35, 36). This description of miracles worked by God reinforces the imagery of ‘wonderful works’ mentioned earlier in the psalm (see verse 8).

7, verses 39-43: God’s works are mentioned in many psalms; what makes Psalm 107 unusual is its depiction of God’s works as explication for the people. The psalm is a hymn of thanksgiving, making God’s works known to all humanity, so that all may join in the praise of God.

‘Some sat in darkness and in gloom’ (Psalm 107: 10) … darkness closes in on a Dublin street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Psalm 107 (NRSVA):

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

4 Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
5 hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
7 he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
8 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things.

10 Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in misery and in irons,
11 for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 Their hearts were bowed down with hard labour;
they fell down, with no one to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
14 he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

17 Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
29 he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
31 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

33 He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
35 He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
36 And there he lets the hungry live,
and they establish a town to live in;
37 they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
38 By his blessing they multiply greatly,
and he does not let their cattle decrease.

39 When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
40 he pours contempt on princes
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
41 but he raises up the needy out of distress,
and makes their families like flocks.
42 The upright see it and are glad;
and all wickedness stops its mouth.
43 Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Time to Act is Now!’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Linet Musasa, of the Anglican Council of Zimbabwe.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (Friday 10 June 2022) invites us to pray:

We pray for governments and international organisations to take urgent action on climate change.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org