Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
64, Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania

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

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, I am offering photographs of synagogues that have welcomed me over the years and offered a place of prayer and reflection. My photographs this morning (21 April 2021) are from the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (בית הכנסת עץ חיים‎, Tree of Life) in Chania, the only surviving synagogue in Crete.

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There were Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.

They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the arrival of Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

At the beginning of the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities in the island: Chania, Iraklion and Rethymnon.

Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine HMS Vivid off the coast of Santorini. In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.

Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty after World War II. The sleeping building was desecrated. It was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. His family ties inspired many visits to Crete. He returned in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is now crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the services on days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 35-40 (NRSVA):

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

The courtyard of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania … there have been Jews in Crete for over 2,300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (21 April 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for schools in the Oxford Diocese, who have recently started a School Twinning Programme with the Church of South India. May friendships be fostered and skills developed.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

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