SOS International participants visit the Parthenon. The author is in the front row, far right, with a blue baseball cap. Photos courtesy of Bella Adler.
If somebody asks me why I wear my sparkling silver Star of David necklace, I don’t hesitate to answer, “Because I am Jewish.” So when I began to pack for my summer of Jewish community service in Greece, it wasn’t even a question that my special necklace would be the first item on my packing list. Little did I know that upon arriving in Greece, that the necklace would be the very thing I wanted to hide.
I had the privilege of joining Rabbi Joel Tessler, his wife Aviva and nine amazing teens who participated in SOS International, a Jewish educational travel program. SOS, which stands for Summer of Service, travels for a few weeks every summer to Europe with the goal of rejuvenating a dwindling Jewish community. Rabbi Tessler is the rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom, a synagogue in Potomac, Md.
Greece was our destination. I had never met Rabbi Tessler or his wife and I had never been overseas before, except to travel to our homeland, Israel. European culture was new to me and I had no idea what to expect. What would the food taste like? How would the people dress? Would the Greek teens enjoy the same activities as me? Could we play sports together? Would my Jewish heritage allow me to connect with Greek culture?
Greece had a thriving Jewish community before WWII. In Salonica, Greece’s second largest city, more than half of the population was Jewish. Our tour guide mentioned that this city contained the only port in all of Europe that was closed on Saturday because it was Shabbat. In many of the small villages near the city, the homes display Jewish stars on the exterior or Hebrew phrases painted on an exposed corner. One synagogue was built on the foundation of the first synagogue in Greece, dating back almost 2000 years ago. Majestic old synagogues remain all over the country.
But today there are no regular communal prayer services in these beautiful houses of worship. A minyan (10 men) is nowhere to be found. Kosher food is scarce. Formal prayer services are not permitted unless there is a security guard inside the synagogue and another one stationed outside. It gives me chills to think that the scarcity of Jews in Greece is a result of the Holocaust. While shopping on the streets of Salonica, my friend was told by an Israeli tourist to flip over her drawstring backpack so the Jewish star would not be seen. This was requested for her security. I, too, would sometimes hide my Star of David necklace in my shirt as we toured the country.
We walked on the cobblestone roads that the Nazis trekked more than 70 years ago to forcibly remove Jews from their homes. We hiked the mountains where the lucky Jews fled for survival. We saw the synagogues, ports, towns, homes and villages that used to be the center of a thriving Jewish life. (Photo at left: Bella Adler, left, and Miriam Zenilman in the mountains of Greece.)
Our group visited many Holocaust memorial sites in the Greek seaside. In our tour bus we circled the piece of land that used to be one of the biggest Jewish cemeteries in all of Europe. After the war, it became the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
These experiences were upsetting, heartbreaking and tear-worthy. But at the same time, it was empowering to know that one group of people can impact an entire community. Though the responsibility is great, together we can make a huge change. We spent five days in a Jewish sleepaway camp located near Mount Olympus. The camp, supported by the Jewish community of Greece, is called Li Tohoro. The children lacked a Jewish education.
We taught the children how to use a prayer book. We showed them what it means to keep Shabbat by teaching Hebrew songs, writing pre-Shabbat notes to each other, leading a prayer service, lighting candles and singing the traditional blessings before the meals. Our excitement about celebrating Shabbat and embracing Judaism impacted the children. Before leaving the camp we felt as if we put the Star of David around their necks. The friendships we made at the camp will last a lifetime.
Days later we cleaned the Jewish cemetery in Chaldiki so that is looks nice when relatives come visit the graves before the High Holidays. Chaldiki is the oldest Jewish community in Greece. In Ionnanina we organized old Jewish texts for a woman who can’t read Hebrew but takes care of a synagogue. We visited Holocaust survivors in a small Hebrew nursing home in Salonica; we listened to their stories and reignited their spirits. Though we were just 10 kids, we touched the hearts of many Greeks, sometimes in the smallest of ways.
My trip helped me realize how privileged we are to live in a country where our religion doesn’t pose a security concern and Jewish education is accessible. My hope is that I can use this trip to inspire those around me to realize how blessed we are, how needy the world around us remains and how much impact each of us can have.
One day, it is my mission to return to Greece and give to each of my new Greek, Jewish friends a Star of David necklace. A necklace to be worn with pride, in an environment where Judaism is embraced and Jewish learning is encouraged. We each have the power to become that inspirational role model, one whose smallest acts of kindness make the biggest difference.