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Restoring a place for God to dwell among us

A revived Tree of Life Synagogue -- this one in Greece -- brims with life, shows the power of resilience and community
Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania, Crete (Sally Abrams)

Two weeks ago, my husband and I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services at Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life) Synagogue.

No, not the synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 congregants were murdered during Shabbat services a year ago.

We attended a different Etz Hayyim. To visit this synagogue, you must take yourself to Greece, to the island of Crete, to the town of Hania. Walk down a narrow little street that leads away from the picturesque Venetian port. There, amid souvenir shops and tavernas, you will find it. A synagogue that shares its name with the one in Pittsburgh… and maybe something more.

The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania dates to the 17th century. It was built in what had been a 15th century Catholic church from the Venetian period. In 1645, Crete’s Ottoman rulers offered the abandoned building to the Jewish community.

Jewish life in Crete dates back to antiquity. These Greek-speaking Jews were Romaniote, one of the oldest Jewish communities in existence. They had their own language, Judeo-Greek, a Greek dialect that contained Hebrew along with some Aramaic and Turkish words. Romaniote Jews are distinct from Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who arrived in the Ottoman Empire after expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Over the centuries Crete’s Jews witnessed and withstood a succession of empires that conquered the region- Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman.

If you’d visited Crete during the Middle Ages you would have found Jews who made a living as artisans; owning land was forbidden to them. They worked as tailors, shoemakers, bakers, silk weavers, and dyers. Some were physicians, some were lawyers. Others hand-copied books for a living. The community produced distinguished Talmudic scholars, rabbis, and philosophers.

In the late 19th century, amid uncertainty over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and turmoil over the question of unifying Crete with mainland Greece, Jews began to emigrate. By 1941 Hania was the sole Jewish community on Crete, home to about 330 Jews.

Then the Nazis invaded. On May 29, 1944, the entire Jewish community of Hania was arrested and imprisoned. On June 8, 1944 they were loaded onto the German freighter, Tanais, and transported to the Greek mainland for deportation to a concentration camp. On the way, the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine. None of its 265 Jewish captives survived. Only a handful of Hania’s Jews, those who had managed to evade the Nazis, survived the war.

Etz Hayyim synagogue was left in ruins and could have languished in oblivion were it not for the efforts of Nikos Stavroulakis, a Greek Jewish artist, scholar and activist who spearheaded the synagogue’s restoration. Stavroulakis joined forces with the World Monuments Fund and a group of private citizens and philanthropists. The synagogue reopened in October 1999. The building also houses a restored, functioning mikveh and a museum showcasing Cretan Jewish history.

At the synagogue’s dedication ceremony, a guest rabbi from Thessaloniki challenged Stavroulakis: What will you do tomorrow, when we have all left? Will it be a museum?

That is what makes this synagogue remarkable. Unlike so many restored synagogues that have become monuments to dead or exiled Jews, this synagogue is brimming with life. Etz Hayyim, defining itself as “a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation”, is a communal treasure that attracts both Jews and non-Jews.

We saw that for ourselves when we attended Kabbalat Shabbat. The Romaniote sanctuary (bima located on the western wall, Torah ark located on the eastern wall, pews lined up between them in rows facing the center) was filled with 50-60 worshipers. Some came from Hania’s small Jewish community, which includes a number of Israelis. The service also drew tourists like us, along with non-Jewish locals.

Torah Ark, Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania, Crete (Sally Abrams)

An Israeli member of the community organized the service, inviting various people in attendance to lead the Hebrew prayers. What a delight it was to hear these familiar words sung to entirely different melodies! One man’s Mizrachi chanting, delivered in an astonishing voice and with soul-piercing piety, left us reeling. I’d never heard anything like it.

After services, people gathered in the beautifully decorated sukkah to say Kiddush over the wine and HaMotzi over homemade challah. I glanced around me, unsure who was Jewish and who wasn’t, who was local and who wasn’t. It didn’t matter. The sense of kedusha (holiness) was palpable, a fulfillment of Exodus 25:8, when God said to the Children of Israel: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”.

After Kabbalat Shabbat services this beautiful sukkah and the surrounding courtyard were filled with people saying Kiddush and making HaMotzi over homemade challah. (Sally Abrams)

As the 19th-century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, when asked where God exists: “God exists everywhere man lets Him in.”

Etz Hayyim in Hania celebrated its 20th anniversary during October, hosting many special events for the community.

The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh marked an anniversary this month too, one year since its members were gunned down by a man consumed with Jew-hatred.

While these synagogues share a name, and both have known horror, the circumstances are different. In Hania, the challenge was bringing life back to a restored building in a tiny Jewish community, but one whose members did not experience the devastation themselves. In Pittsburgh, their trauma is first-hand and fresh.

What these two congregations share, however, is resilience, holding fast to all that we cherish as Jews. “The Torah is a Tree of Life to all who hold fast to it,” we pray.

I saw that in Hania. And it was on display in Pittsburgh, the one-year anniversary of a massacre marked with community-wide prayer, Torah study, and service projects.

May these two synagogues continue to be Trees of Life for their communities, welcoming all who are ready to let God in.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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