The continuing renewal of organized Jewish life in Cyprus will be celebrated on Monday with the "crowning" of Rabbi Ze'ev Raskin and a ceremonial introduction of a new Torah scroll at the Chabad House in Larnaca, to be attended by dignitaries from Cyprus, Israel and elsewhere.
The festivities will mark a Jewish renaissance of sorts for Cyprus. Aside from a small expatriate community of Jews who have made the island their home in recent years, the only Jewish presence to speak of on Cyprus since the Roman era was a doomed attempt to set up a Jewish agricultural settlement there at the turn of the 20th century.
Early church father Paul was said to have Jewish supporters from Cyprus, and Jews there led a rebellion against Roman rule some 15 years before Bar Kochba's revolt, nearly 1,900 years ago. But, following the Jewish-led rebellion in Cyprus, the Romans forbade any further Jewish settlement there.
Now the Jews are coming back, though, and their relations with the authorities are vastly improved.
Raskin serves both the (mostly Israeli) Jewish tourists to the island and the nearly 1,500 Jewish permanent residents there. Originally of Kiryat Malachi in Israel, he first moved to Cyprus in 2003. Since then he has established Shabbat services that draw about 150 people some of whom cross the border from the northern (Turkish) side of the island to attend.
Ground will also be broken for a mikve behind the Chabad House. Until now, anyone living in Cyprus had to fly to Israel to use a mikve; Raskin believes that the ritual bath in Larnaca will encourage many of those who currently do not observe Jewish ritual purity laws to do so.
Recently, Chabad has also opened a storefront hangout at the indulgent summer vacation spot of Ayia Napa, offering kosher refreshments and Jewish spirituality to late-night revelers.
"There are sparks of holiness flying all over the place around here," said Sa'adya Notik, an enthusiastic 22-year-old Chabad volunteer from California who has manned the Ayia Napa stand this summer with three other Chabad volunteers from around the world.
"Yiddishkeit in Cyprus is rocking and alive and bigger and better than ever!" Donations from George Rohr have made much of these activities possible, Chabad spokesmen noted.
Police in Cyprus are respectful and look out for the Jewish community there, Raskin said, and the locals are more curious than anything else.
"The more sophisticated Cypriots know what a rabbi is," he said. "They say, 'Oh, I met a few of you guys while I was on business in London' but most have no idea what we are. All they know is that we represent some kind of religion. I had to explain to customs inspectors what kosher food is about. Once in a while, I meet with other religious leaders here, and we have fairly good relations. Other than that, it's pretty relaxed around here. Everything is in slow motion."
But the work of bringing Jews closer to Jewish tradition (and the messiah) is difficult, he admitted. "The local Jews are largely unfamiliar with Jewish tradition," Raskin said, "and the Israeli tourists have just a quick experience and then leave. So you don't see the fruits of your labor right away. But we just keep getting stronger."
Perhaps because of the vacation atmosphere, Raskin, said, there is a chance to reach people who would otherwise be reticent to approach people like himself.
"We see that Jews are coming to us instead of going out to the clubs," he said. "They have deep questions and are interested in engaging with haredim, or religious Jews if you will, in a way that I don't think you can find anywhere else."
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