19 June 2018

Meeting the open-minded
chief rabbi with a vision for
Greek’s Jewish community

With Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin at the Holocaust Memorial Service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

Patrick Comerford

After the Holocaust Memorial Service in Chania on Sunday night [17 June 2018], remembering the 256 Jews from Crete who were killed in June 1944, I had a lengthy conversation with the Chief Rabbi of Greece, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who has been the leader of the Jewish community in Greece since 2015.

He has been described as a liberal Orthodox rabbi, but he refuses to be boxed in by any one label, and he insists instead that he is just a Jew.

‘Maybe I was described as liberal Orthodox because I believe the role of a Jew should be outside and not closed into a ghetto,’ he said in a recent interview with Laim Hoare of the online magazine eJewishPhilanthropy.

He points out that traditionally Greek-speaking or 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.’

Greece has had a thriving Jewish community for thousands of years, and the Jewish community once numbered 90,000 in Thessaloniki alone.

From as early as 540 BC, Greece was a large and important centre of Jewish life, and Jewish culture in Greece has always been multicultural. The Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews have been in Greece for more than 2,000 years. Others are descended from Italian and Sephardic communities who arrived with the Venetians or after expulsions from Spain and Portugal. The Ashkenazim began arriving in the ninth century.

In the 1600s, Thessaloniki became one of the largest Jewish communities in the world and was known as the ‘Mother of Israel.’

Many Greek Jews left Greece in the 1900s because of the economic crisis, and during the Holocaust, at least 60,000 of Greece’s pre-war Jewish population of 77,000 were killed.

Today there are about 5,000 Jews in Greece, including 3,000 who live in Athens, where there are several functioning synagogues, 2,000 in Larissa, 700 in Thessaloniki and several smaller communities in islands such as Rhodes and Crete.

Gabriel Negrin was born and raised in Athens in a family of Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews. He attended the Athens Jewish Community School, and from an early age he was involved in the life of the synagogue. As a boy, his love for Jewish customs and his tendency to mimic the older pious men earned him the Greek nickname ravinakos, meaning ‘little rabbi.’

He studied sound-engineering studies in Crete, where his best friends were Christian Orthodox. The Jewish community in Athens then sent him to study as a rabbi at the Shehebar Sephardic Centre in Jerusalem. There one of his best friends was an assistant to the Greek Patriarchate.

He returned to Athens, and at the age of 26, he succeeded Chief Rabbi Isaac Mizan as the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Athens and the spiritual leader of the largest community in Greece.

The role of chief rabbi includes dealing with bureaucracy, ritual slaughter for kosher meat, performing weddings and circumcisions, visiting the elderly and the sick, representing the community in official occasions and leading prayers.

The economic crisis in Greece has increased his pastoral work has a lot. The Jewish community in Athens is in danger of losing its young people, and he has also identified the lack of opportunities for Jewish learning as a problem in recent years.

To close that gap, he started delivering a short sermon in Greek, after the Torah portion reading every Shabbat. He has also changed the commemoration of the dead every Saturday, using the time for a class about Judaism. His topics include why men and women sit separately during prayer, or, after the recent terror attacks, what martyrdom is according to Judaism. This is now attended by dozens of people every week.

Rabbi Negrin is knowledgeable on all things Greek and Jewish and can engage with 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 has a strong working relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, and the two meet regularly.

As we stood in the passage way that links the synagogue with tombs of the rabbis, he spoke of his interesting dialogue with the Muslims, including the Bektashi Order, a dervish order with headquarters in Tirana, Albania, and with strong Greek influences.

According to a recent study of global anti-Semitism; 69% of the Greek population hold anti-Semitic views, the highest percentage outside the countries of the Middle East and Africa.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, with his understanding and his generous open-hearted approach to dialogue and community life, seems the ideal person to lead the Greek Jewish community through the present crisis and to a new future.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania on Sunday night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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