Heading a national Jewish federations mission to Greece, two local leaders met a Jewish community whose members are determined to keep their faith and traditions alive despite persistent anti-Semitism, a struggling economy, and the massive decimation they endured in the Nazi Holocaust.
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, newly installed president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and the federation’s campaign director, Jeffrey Korbman, cochaired the mission, which included 120 UJA campaign directors and lay leaders from across North America.
They visited the capital city of Athens and the once thriving Jewish community of Thessaloniki (Salonika) between July 7 and 9, a prelude to a longer trip in Israel.
“The purpose was to show the people who raise the dollars where the dollars are going, and when the idea of Greece came up, we said, ‘This is a place where we need to go,’ said Dannin Rosenthal in an Aug. 13 phone interview.
Plagued by a right-wing anti-Semitic political party called Golden Dawn, some “69 percent of Greeks espous[e] anti-Semitic views,” according to a May 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League.
The ADL said Greece was “nearly twice as anti-Semitic as Europe’s second-most anti-Semitic country, France (37 percent).”
Such alarming figures were added reasons for the North American fund-raisers to visit the two cities with that nation’s largest Jewish populations.
In Athens, the visitors met with leaders of the community, which counts about 3,000 Jews.
“Until 2008 it had been a donor community, but since then, economic downturn has affected all of Greece, and they are now recipients of funds from the [American] Jewish Joint Distribution Community and the Jewish Agency,” said Dannin Rosenthal.
The overseas Jewish organizations fund a day school in Athens, which takes 12-year-old students on class trips to Israel; provide school scholarships for vulnerable families; and partner with local institutions to support two synagogues, a cultural center, and a soup kitchen.
When the group asked community president Minos Moissis about anti-Semitism, said Dannin Rosenthal, “He told us, ‘We are worried, we are alert, but we are not afraid of the rising anti-Semitism because there is an Israel.’ The Greek Jews know the rest of the Diaspora community is there for them because our dollars, through the Jewish Agency and the Joint, are supporting their community.”
In Thessaloniki mission members were given yellow stars of David, each bearing the name of a person who perished in the Holocaust.
Before World War II there were 77,000 Jews in Greece. Some 56,000 of them lived in Thessaloniki. Today just 1,950 Jews live there.
The pain of what caused those statistics was partially eased by a visit to a summer camp for Jewish children.
“We saw young kids who speak Hebrew, and many of them have gone to visit Israel,” said Korbman. “I would have thought that Greece was a place where Jews were not welcome. But I learned there is a reciprocal relationship between Greece and Israel with tourism. They do business, and it is encouraged.” On the official level, at least, “it is very open, very positive,” he said.
Yet a few days prior to their visit, a Holocaust memorial near one of the two synagogues in Athens was vandalized.
“There are two kinds of anti-Semitism in Greece,” noted Dannin Rosenthal. “There is a casual anti-Semitism of offhand remarks. Some people find it is easy to blame immigrants, and it is easy to blame Jews for bad government decision-making in bad economic times. The people who live there feel it is OK to call someone a ‘dirty Jew.’”
“The prime minister is very much against Golden Dawn and has had some of its leaders arrested,” she added, “but Golden Dawn has seats in the European Union parliament, and that has people concerned.”
Also taking part in the mission was Sarabeth Margolis Wizen, director of the Greater MetroWest federation’s Women’s Philanthropy unit.
She was impressed with the solidarity of the Jewish communities in both Athens and Thessaloniki.
“At least 75 percent of the children attend the day school we help fund [in Athens], and the synagogue in Athens is run by a strong network of volunteers,” she said.
What especially moved mission member Maxine Murnick was “the little kids at the day school. They all started singing all the Hebrew songs that our kids and grandchildren sing.”
“You realize it is a Jewish community like many others in the world, and it is a very vibrant community,” said Murnick, a Short Hills resident who is chair of the federation’s UJA Campaign.
Wizen said one person told her, “We don’t want to leave, but it is always in the back of our minds, and if we go, we are going to Israel.”
“The Greek Jews were very thankful for our visit,” said Dannin Rosenthal. “It meant so much for them that we came to see them.”