An Ancient Community Gets a Young Leader
by Sherri Moshman
Two years ago, the council of Athens’ Jewish community selected then-25-year-old Gabriel Negrin to be the new rabbi of his native Athens. We spoke with Negrin about the history of Greece’s Jews, the rich tradition of liturgical music and how he envisions the future of Greek Jewry.
Greece’s current prime minister is the youngest in over 100 years, and certainly you, at age 27, must be the youngest Greek chief rabbi in history. How has the congregation in Athens accepted you?
A congregation, as any human group, has a mix of traditions, habits and curiosity. The reception of any new arrival is related to this mix. However, I am not the only young rabbi of Athens, since Rabbi Jacob Arar [who served as rabbi of Athens for nearly 50 years] was also appointed in the same position at approximately the same age.
Athens has two synagogues, Beth Shalom, which is your congregation, and Etz Hayyim. Do these two synagogues work together? Can you tell us a little about Beth Shalom?
I am the rabbi of the Athens community. We have one community, but two synagogues. The Romaniote one, Etz Hayyim, was established in 1903-1904 and is the smaller of the two. The Sephardic synagogue, Beth Shalom, was established in 1935 and renovated in 1971. It’s newer and bigger, so it is called “the big one.”
The two synagogues are practically in the same location across from one another on the same street. On High Holidays we operate both; otherwise we use only one place—usually Beth Shalom, and from time to time Etz Hayyim.
You studied sound engineering in Crete before you did your rabbinical studies in Jerusalem. Can you tell us more about your studies and your music background?
Sound engineering was one of the topics covered in my music studies. I am a composer of mixed electroacoustic and contemporary music as well. I have a “sweet tooth” for recordings.
You are very interested in traditional Greek-Jewish music and hymns and would like to include these more in the service. Tell us more about that.
Hearing is one of the senses that helps us understand the world. A religious service can be a holistic experience if all senses participate. Our Greek Jewish tradition is very rich in sounds and music. It would be a shame to disregard such a tradition and prevent both our community and our fellow Jews from other traditions from enjoying and enriching their experiences.
The same applies to the other senses. For smell, for instance, we use carnation cloves or lemons for havdalah, while in other countries, different, locally available spices or plants are used. Everything is used to enhance the pleasure of being part of a tradition with roots and future.
You’ve been described as “liberal Orthodox.” What changes do you propose in the synagogue and service itself?
Every musician has a different touch on a same piece of music in a similar way as the same variety of grapes can give a different wine in a different land. My young age can be an advantage for reaching younger members, or a disadvantage for reaching older members. I consider myself very lucky to work under the auspices of a young and renewed community board that gives me the opportunity to express a more open-minded and embracing Judaism.
In Chania, Crete—a city of almost no Jewish population—the synagogue has become a rich cultural center, attracting many non-Jews to its cultural and educational programs. Is this an example you’d like to follow in the rest of the country?
I spent some years while studying music in Crete in a town close to Chania, so I am very familiar with the synagogue and the great people who make it alive.
Jews are part of the cultural identity of the Greek society, as we were here even before the second Temple—we are a small part, but part of it. The Chania synagogue (a sister synagogue with our Athenian Etz Hayyim since 2010) is just one example of opening cultural activities to non-Jews. Our JCC in Athens has a rich lifelong learning program open to all. Our synagogues also receive frequent visits from university students and faculties from sociology, theology and history classes.
Greece lost 86 percent of its Jewish population in the Holocaust. The Jewish community in Thessaloniki, once known as the “mother of Israel,” was decimated. Recently, a new law was passed banning Holocaust denial, as is the case in most of Europe. Do you find this law a hopeful development in view of the rise in popularity of the neo-Nazi movement in Greece? Is the Holocaust taught in schools?
The rise of extremist parties practicing hate speech, promoting exclusion, discrimination and extremist indoctrination and recruitment is not only a local phenomenon but can be observed, unfortunately, in many countries. The reasons behind that are complex. The Shoah is taught in schools—not necessarily to the extent that would enable young people to realize the lessons from history, but the ministry of education, in cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Greece, organizes seminars for the teachers on how to teach the Holocaust in schools. Moreover, students from high schools in different cities in Greece participate in a video-creating contest on the Holocaust, and then, depending on the budget, the ministry organizes a visit of these students to Auschwitz.
Anti-Semitism in Western Europe is a topic of much discussion these days. How do you see the future of Jews in Greece and in Europe? Do you feel it’s important to have a strong diaspora, or do you think that Jews should think about making aliyah to Israel?
Fighting anti-Semitism cannot be the privilege of Jews alone. It is the duty of every democratic citizen. Anti-Semitism is not only an attack on Jews but an assault on the core values of any democratic, open and pluralistic society. I believe that our presence here in Greece is of mutual benefit both for the Jewish community and for the country, as societies that promote a climate of mutual understanding and respect among all citizens are essential to good governance and safe life.
A strong diaspora needs a strong Israel, and a strong Israel also needs a strong diaspora. The Jewish communities around the world are not only beacons among the nations but also bridge builders between nations and Israel. Please do not forget that “diaspora” is a Greek word that literally means “spreading the seeds.” These are the seeds of brotherhood and friendship.
In countries near Israel, it becomes even more important to be there and remain a solid part of the local society. Aliyah is always an option and a right for every Jew individually as a choice, but collectively it is only observed when there is no other option.
Sherri Moshman Paganos is an educator and writer who lives in Athens, Greece, where she teaches English at the American College of Greece and writes on travel and culture.