On harbors and lighthouses, symbolic and rea

Keep dreaming: Wandering the quaint alleyways of the Old Town, the last thing we anticipated seeing was an inviting sign for the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Etz Hayyim Synagogue 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It doesn’t get much more romantic than Chania. And though the flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to this agreeable Greek island lasts barely an hour, it feels as though one couldn’t get much farther away from Israel either.
Sitting with my wife on the balcony of our bed-and-breakfast overlooking a picture- perfect 750-year-old Venetian harbor on the northern coast of Crete – with fishing boats bobbing on the sparkling water below and a charming lighthouse in the distance – the threat of a nuclear Iran and the harsh realities of social injustice on the streets of Tel Aviv all but evaporate in the morning mist. As do all those gnawing challenges facing the Jewish people.
Given that it is these challenges that take up the bulk of my working day, it seemed that this was going to be the quintessential getaway. But lo and behold, things aren’t always what they appear to be.
Wandering the quaint alleyways of the Old Town late Friday afternoon, the last thing we anticipated seeing was an inviting sign for the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. But Shabbat had a willy-nilly way of showing up when we least expected it. As we’d planned to make do on our own that week, we hadn’t even bothered googling “Jewish Chania,” certain that the search wouldn’t turn up a thing. But a knock on the door revealed an entirely different reality, in the embodiment of one Nicholas Stavroulakis. Bottom line: we ended up taking part in an inspiring Kabbalat Shabbat service two hours later. The story that brought us there was 2,000 years in the making, however, and too intriguing and disturbing not to be shared.
The earliest reference to the Jews of Crete is to be found in the Second Book of Maccabees. Nothing tangible is known of their life on the island, however, until about a half-millennium later, when under Emperor Theodosius II they were subjected to a variety of prohibitive measures. It turns out that this was not to be the worst of the anti-Jewish sentiment to which they would be subjected, but I am getting way ahead of myself. First they were to be deceived by one of their own.
In about 430 CE, a Rabbi Moshe appeared within the community, claiming to be the same Moshe who had led the Hebrews out of Egypt. He spent a year traversing the island, promising to lead the Jews of Crete to the Holy Land. Perhaps because of the troubles they were experiencing with the evolving Christian empire, they believed him and assembled on the day specified in anticipation of salvation. According to Socrates’s account of the episode, they then plunged into the sea from the island cliffs – to the astonishment of their Christian neighbors who had gathered to witness the event. Many drowned.
What happened to the false messiah is unknown, but those followers who were saved by fishermen were then convinced that they might yet be saved by Jesus – and converted. Some, however, must have continued to preserve the faith of their forebears, for though the horrifying fate of the community was not to be sealed for another 1,500 years, numerous references attest to a continual Jewish presence on the island throughout the centuries, despite the harsh decrees to which they were periodically subjected.
Then, in 1941, Crete was occupied by Nazi Germany. For the next three years, though, the Jewish population essentially suffered no more than those of their Christian compatriots. That was to change dramatically and horrifyingly in June 1944. What happened then is recorded in an account of the events published by Katina Singelakis, a non-Jewish resident of the Jewish Quarter whose close girlfriends from school were among those who would be rounded up and deported, never to be heard from again.
“At dawn we were woken from our beds by shrill voices and loud knocking… A battalion of the occupying forces had surrounded our little neighborhood and… were rousing all of the Jews from their houses… What moments of horror and agony!… They had all been hardworking people and now suddenly they were being marched down to the harbor carrying a few pitiful possessions on their backs.… Instead of celebrating the Shabbat in their little synagogue, they were being pressed along out of their neighborhood by murderous soldiers. I cannot describe to you the tragic sight of our farewell.”
For two weeks the 263 Jews of Chania were imprisoned under inhuman conditions, then loaded by the Nazis onto a boat bound for Athens. A British submarine sighted the ship and, suspecting that it was being used to transport arms, torpedoed the vessel, which sank in 15 minutes, leaving no survivors.
IN THE meantime, the community’s Etz Hayyim Synagogue had been utterly desecrated. “Our so-called cultured people,” Katina recalled, “ransacked that tiny House of God. They took all of the valuable objects and then rented the building as a dwelling,” first having dug into the walls and grounds searching for treasure they hoped the Jews had left behind.
In the process, the remains of three rabbis who had been buried in the courtyard centuries earlier were scattered about. The tenants continued to occupy the building until 1960, after which what remained of the structure was turned into a neighborhood garbage dump and chicken coop, becoming a magnet for stray dogs. It presumably would have remained in this condition had Stavroulakis not come along.
Descended from Jews of Chania, he was determined to restore the synagogue to its earlier grandeur, no less as a functioning sanctuary than as a memorial to the 2,000-year-old congregation that had disappeared. He launched his campaign at a conference on Jewish heritage sponsored by the World Monuments Fund in New York in 1994, where he managed to convince those present to support his undertaking. Heartened by this success, for the next five years he would singlehandedly continue to struggle to collect the funds and direct the effort to restore the synagogue, while also piecing together a congregation that would make use of it. In 1999 Etz Hayyim was rededicated and has been in continual use ever since.
This is despite arson attacks against it in January 2010, when there were two attempts to again turn the synagogue into a ruin. While the fire damage was extensive and the incidents disheartening, Stavroulakis is quick to point out that the perpetrators were not from the island and that he refuses to allow anti-Semitism to define him. Instead he remains steadfastly determined to keep his synagogue open as a venue encouraging tolerance and inclusiveness.
Indeed, on the Friday evening my wife and I showed up, there were probably as many non-Jews present as there were Jews, of whom there might not even have been enough to constitute a minyan. But when Nicholas asked me to lead the congregation in kaddish, I didn’t hesitate. There were 263 souls to be commemorated, and I was convinced that in proclaiming God’s greatness aloud I could also count on His/Her infinite understanding if we were lacking one or two people.
Nevertheless, the next morning, back on the B&B balcony with the water glistening below as it has for centuries, I was determined to do what I could to ensure that Etz Hayyim might continue to be the sort of Jewish center Stavroulakis set out to rebuild – a welcoming harbor and spiritual lighthouse mirroring the image before me. While the charter flight my wife and I arrived on was only one of several that had arrived that week packed with Israelis, not one of them had shown up for services. I couldn’t blame them; Etz Hayyim was presumably as much of a secret for them as it had been for me.
But now that the word is out, let me suggest that Etz Hayyim become a routine stop for anyone visiting Chania, preferably on a Friday evening. The city will be no less romantic for the detour, but Israel will feel quite a bit closer, the Jews of the town will be heartened and visitors will be rewarded with a renewed appreciation for everything the Jewish state was meant to be.
The writer serves as deputy chair of the World Zionist Organization and as a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The views expressed herein are his own.