Unlike the ongoing economical crisis shaking Europe, the winter in Greece is relatively mild. The brighter than usual January sun casts a warm Mediterranean light over Athens as the city’s new chief rabbi Gabriel Negrin, 26, drives from place to place to visit community members.
“The city is huge and getting around takes a really long time. But the people of the community are so happy having the rabbi coming to their homes that is totally worth it,” he tells The Times of Israel.
Negrin is very young and very busy, two things that you can’t help but notice at the beginning of any conversation with him. Although appointed the Chief Rabbi of Athens last spring (a title that in fact includes not only the capital of Greece itself, but the whole country, roughly 5,000 Jews), he officially took office on January 1, 2015.
“Sorry if I’m late, I just have so much to do,” he apologizes on a Skype call from his office in Athens, dozens of Jewish books on the shelves behind him.
For the past few years, Greece has been in the international press spotlight for two reasons: the financial crisis and its impact on the European and world economy, and the growth of the far-right party Golden Dawn. The party openly uses Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic references and currently holds 18 out of the 300 seats of the Greek parliament.
Ahead of Greece’s national elections on January 25, Golden Dawn’s power base seems to have slightly declined, but the party is still constantly polling above 5%, meaning it should enter the parliament, but it is doubtful whether it will be included in the new government.
The most likely election scenario is the victory of the far-left anti-austerity party Syriza, where anti-Israel stances are quite common.
‘May God bless and keep the bad politicians… far away from us!’
Even more worrisome to the Jewish community is that, according to the global anti-Semitism survey published by the Anti-Defamation League in May 2014, 69% of the Greek population hold anti-Semitic views, the highest percentage outside the countries of the Middle East and Africa.
Asked about these issues, a seemingly untroubled Negrin responds with a paraphrase from “The Fiddler on the Roof,” “May God bless and keep the bad politicians… far away from us!”
“I’m aware of these issues, but I must say that when I’m out in the streets, I don’t see anti-Semitism,” he says, “I think that Greece is a safe country, many people outside the Jewish community like us and we live in harmony. It is true that there are people and politicians that dislike us, but this is everywhere, including in Israel.”
The economic crisis, the young rabbi admits, has deeply affected the life of the community. However, as he describes the tremendous effort of the Jewish institutions in helping people, his words are full of positivity and hope.
“A Jewish community has to be there for its members in times of joy and in times of need. The number of Jews who rely on it for financial support is growing but we have been able to manage it also thanks to the help of foreign Jewish institutions. The community is really trying to make a difference, to be alive, to grow. And I believe that preserving Jewish life in Greece is crucial: It may not be the most important community in terms of numbers, but it has been around for over 2,000 years and holds tremendous history and values.”
The history and values were almost wiped out during the Holocaust, when at least 60,000 of Greece’s prewar 77,000 Jewish population were killed.
“Today, the International Holocaust Memorial Day that occurs on January 27 is deeply felt in the country,” says Negrin. “Commemorations will be held in many cities, the vast majority of them organized by national and local authorities.”
Building a Jewish educational life for his community is Negrin’s number one concern, both figuring out how things work and changing to what he believes should be done differently.
“I think that the lack of opportunities for Jewish learning in the past few years has been one of the main problems,” says Negrin.
To close this gap, the rabbi says he has introduced the custom of delivering a dvar Torah, a short sermon in Greek, after the Torah portion reading every Shabbat, something common in many synagogues around the world.
He has also changed the structure of another very important moment for the community: the commemoration of the dead held every Saturday between Mincha and Arvit, the afternoon and evening prayer, that is attended by dozens of people every week.
Until a few weeks ago, he says, the rabbi and a few people would say the Psalms, and the rest of the participants would just whisper about gossip and business.
“Although I think that this is also part of being a community, I decided to cut the Psalms by half and use the rest of the time for a class about Judaism,” says Negrin. Recent topics include explaining why men and women sit separately during prayer, or, after the terror attacks in Paris, what martyrdom is according to Judaism.
“People enjoy the class because we cover questions about identity that they ask themselves in the first place,” says Negrin.
‘For me, being a rabbi really means being a teacher’
The chief rabbi position includes dealing with a lot of bureaucracy, shechitah (the ritual slaughter to provide kosher meat), performing weddings and circumcisions, visiting the elderly and the sick, representing the community in official occasions and leading prayers. But it is teaching at the Athens Jewish school, preparing boys and girls for bar and bat mitzva, and offering enrichment classes that Negrin values the most.
“For me, being a rabbi really means being a teacher and I would like to have as little as possible to take my time from it,” he says.
The community approach to Judaism is generally unobservant Orthodox.
But “something unique about our community is that we have people of different heritage, Greek Jews, Romaniyot Jews, Italian Jews,” explains Negrin. “In my opinion, the fact that many of them don’t know anything about their traditions is a tremendous loss.”
Negrin is studying the different traditions and prayers, in an effort to revive them.
“I would like to build a nusach [style of prayer service] that includes a little bit of everything,” says the rabbi, who has also studied as an electroacoustic contemporary music composer, musician and sound designer, skills that he now applies in recording Greek Jewish tunes.
Negrin says Greek Jews are deeply attached to their homeland and culture.
“Greek Jews are very Greek. The people who have left the country usually have done it because they had to and not because they wanted to. I think this strong connection to the country is very positive.”
As for himself, after a few years of study in Jerusalem, Negrin is thrilled to be back to Athens where he was born and raised in a family of Romaniyot Jews.
“This community has given me so much. Coming back for me was not only a duty, but also something that I felt deeply inside me. If God thought that this is the way I can give back what I received, so be it.”