Keep Dreaming: It’s Greek to me...

...and of concern to us all

May 23, 2013 14:10
ZIONIST YOUTH leaders dancing in front of the Athens synagogue

Zionist Dancing in Greeze521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

From time to time I’m granted a glimpse of the future. It’s one of the perks of my job. Sometimes it’s rosy. Sometimes it’s gray. More often than not the hues intermingle; a sunset on an overcast horizon, or perhaps a sunrise on a cloudy day.

Most recently I got a preview of things to come in ancient Greece. I was there for a seminar of Zionist youth movement counselors hailing from several countries in Europe – members of the next generation to whom tomorrow has been entrusted. We were in Athens as an expression of solidarity with this small Jewish community that is going through particularly rough times due to the economic hardships facing the country as a whole. Flashes of what I got to see: The Beth Shalom synagogue. On March 24, 1944, the Jews of Athens were summoned here by their Nazi occupiers. Once inside, the doors shut behind them. Those who hadn’t come of their own volition were arrested in their homes and shops, eventually to be herded onto trains headed for Auschwitz, there to perish along with a full 87 percent of the 78,000- strong Greek Jewish community.

On the Shabbat of my visit, I attended services in that very same synagogue and looked on as the 50 seminar participants danced on the street that 70 years ago had been overrun by German soldiers. It was not a moment to be taken for granted, and the young counselors hardly needed me to point that out. Standing around a memorial nestled in an adjacent park, they were asked to share a story of a Holocaust survivor they knew. I shouldn’t have been surprised that they all had one; if they didn’t they wouldn’t have been there. Stories of grandparents sheltered by Righteous Gentiles or who had miraculously escaped the Nazi barbarism or who had bravely stood up to it – which brings us to our next stop.

The Jewish Museum of Athens. This community, that was decimated during WWII, has a history going back more than 2,000 years, one which this little museum is dedicated to documenting. But it is most proud of its new exhibit detailing the lives of Jewish men and women who served as comrades-in-arms in the struggle against Nazi occupation.

The message it carries is particularly important today, and critical to convey to the many non-Jewish schoolchildren and teachers who visit, the vast majority of whom have never knowingly interacted with a Jew before entering the building. They have, however, heard the blatantly xenophobic diatribes of the Golden Dawn political party, which has repeatedly been castigated by scholars and journalists for being neo-Nazi, racist, anti-Semitic and fascist. Frighteningly, it received 7% of the popular vote in the last election, which takes us to our next station.

SYNTAGMA SQUARE. The venue, across from the Parliament building, where mass protests have been held regularly over the past few years. The week before I arrived, it was the site at which Golden Dawn attempted to distribute food to needy Greeks – if they could prove their Greek ethnicity.

It took several arrests and a volley of tear gas to disperse the crowd, though the stench of Holocaust denial and “racial superiority” long remained in the air. Against this background, it is easy to understand the museum’s effort to showcase the contribution Jews made to the national resistance, equal in every way to that of their countrymen.

I wasn’t permitted a peek into the future, however, only to dwell on the past or the quagmire of the present.

Onward, then, to the jewel in the crown of the Athenian Jewish community.

Athens’s Jewish Community School. Some 75% of the community’s children attend this institution. It is beautifully maintained and equipped with the most advanced pedagogic technology. Classroom walls showcase the pupils’ creative output. Judaic studies and Hebrew language are taught seriously. A Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony is held each Friday. It exudes a warm, supportive and intimate atmosphere with parents actively engaged in their children’s education.

And the number of pupils has nearly doubled in the past few years. That is the good news.

Less encouraging is that the increased enrollment, now nearing 150, is attributed in no small measure to the onset of economic hardship and the generous scholarships the community makes available to those in need – made possible in part by emergency aid extended by the Jewish Agency. After years of receiving disproportionately large donations from the Greek Jewish community though Keren Hayesod it was now payback time, a sterling example of ethos in action: “kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh” – all Jews are responsible for one another.

But this more somber reality is not limited to the financial sphere. The rate of intermarriage among the 5,000 Jews of Greece is now over 50%, and while that might be more or less comparable to levels elsewhere, the fact that the community is so small to begin with means that this demographic threatens to erode the critical mass necessary to maintain the community’s infrastructure. Furthermore, to the extent that religious observance may be taken as an indicator of a Jewish community’s ability to survive, it is worrisome that there may not be even a handful of local families strictly observant of Shabbat and kashrut.

Still, it is impossible to meet the local leadership and not come away impressed by its determination to assure a bright future for the community, and its dedication to five fundamental objectives: maintaining Jewish tradition, combating anti-Semitism, ensuring no child be denied enrollment in the school due to lack of means, surviving financially as a community, and assisting individuals facing economic hardship.

Which brings us to our last stop.

Jewish Community Center. It is here that a wide array of programs takes place for diverse segments of the population. It is also where much of the seminar I am taking part in is taking place. Organized jointly by Hanoar Hatzioni and the local shaliah (emissary) of the Jewish Agency, which supported the project along with the World Zionist Organization, its most important component was probably the interaction fostered between young Jews coming together from various communities in Europe.

Their deliberations regarding the challenges they face in their disparate host societies, their determination to participate personally in the Zionist venture, and their dedication to forging an ideological foundation for their educational undertakings all bode well for the future of the Jewish communities they represent.

Still, in disorienting times, it is hard to know if we are gazing at a sunrise or a sunset. Only time will tell if the glass is half empty or half full. In the meantime, though, it would be a betrayal of our legacy not to reach out to those who continue to labor on behalf of our people. The youngsters I had the privilege of engaging with in Greece, and the community leadership I was privileged to meet there, make it easy to do so, and to keep dreaming of a rosy future for our people even as grey clouds hover above. ■

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the executive of The Jewish Agency and the head of its Committee for Small Communities.

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