What's a Greek Romaniote, and What's It Doing on the LES?
When the Roman Empire conquered Jerusalem in the year 70, it brought back many Jewish captives to Rome. When one of the ships en route to Rome fell into danger of sinking near the Greek coast, the ship's captain gave the Jewish slaves on board an option of swimming to shore. Many did jump overboard and made it to the Greek shore, eventually establishing what has become known as "Greek Romaniote" communities. The city of Janina (known today as Ioannina), located one hundred miles from the Mediterranean Coast, was started by these Jewish slaves and has had a Greek Romaniote community for nearly two thousand years.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Balkan region was experiencing political turmoil. Many Greek Jews emigrated to the United States. In 1906, Greek Jews from the city of Janina established a community in the Lower East Side of New York City and in 1927 they built their own synagogue at 280 Broome Street.
The synagogue, called Kehila Kedosha Janina, still stands today and is a New York City landmark. While many of the older generation have died out, local gentrification has brought in new people interested in attending services at an "exotic" historical synagogue. KKJ is actually growing and has services every Saturday and on Jewish holidays. The synagogue went through two years of renovation, even stripping away four layers of linoleum to uncover a beautiful wood floor.
Being neither Ashkenazi (Jews originating from Europe) or Sephardi (Jews originating from Spain), these Greek Jews are in a special position on the Jewish scene. The Greek Jews that run the synagogue have a special interest in perpetuating their specific heritage and that of Greek Jews in general. To that end they have established a museum in the synagogue gallery. Genuine artifacts, pictures, and documents present the history of Greek Jews.
Greece has the unfortunate distinction of losing the highest percentage of Jews in the Holocaust. Of the 1,960 Jews deported from Janina, 1,850 did not return. The museum also serves as a memorial to the Holocaust, with relevant photos and testimonials. This is the only Greek Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Detail of the exterior of Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina
Photo copyright Jeffrey Altman. All rights reserved.