Ioannina, home to unique Jewish community, elects Greece’s first Jewish mayor

Ioannina, home to unique Jewish community, elects Greece’s first Jewish mayor

Moses Elisaf elected with 51% of vote in city that was once heartland of country’s Romaniote Jewish tradition

Moses Elisaf, the first Jewish person elected mayor in Greece. (Screencapture/YouTube)
Moses Elisaf, the first Jewish person elected mayor in Greece. (Screencapture/YouTube)

Moses Elisaf, the head of the tiny Jewish community in the northern Greek city of Ioannina, was elected mayor in local elections on Sunday, reportedly becoming the country’s first-ever Jewish mayor.

Elisaf received 50.33 percent of the vote, narrowly beating incumbent mayor Thomas Bega, who got 49.67%, the Ekathimerini newspaper reported. According to the paper, this is first time that modern Greece has seen a Jew elected mayor.

Elisaf, a professor of pathology at the local university, has been the head of the local Jewish community for 17 years, and formerly also served as the head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“Today, Ioannina made a huge change, a big leap of progress. I feel deep emotion and heavy responsibility towards all my fellow residents,” Ekathimerini quoted him as saying.

The local vote was held five weeks before national elections and saw Greece’s conservative opposition New Democracy party winning in nearly all regions and the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, routing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s ruling party.

Elisaf ran as an independent

Ioannina’s Jewish community numbers just some 50 people today, but was once the center of the unique 2,300 year-old Romaniote Jewish tradition.

The Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, emerged from the first Jewish communities of Europe. Records indicate the first Jewish presence in Greece dating back to 300 BCE.

These Jews became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language, Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written with the Hebrew script.

By the start of the 20th century, some 4,000 Romaniote Jews lived in Ioannina. But amid the economic hardship and the turmoil that accompanied the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many joined their Greek compatriots and emigrated.

Most went to the United States and Palestine, setting up Romaniote synagogues in New York City and Jerusalem. Later, a third was established in Tel Aviv. At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in Ioannina.

The members of the Ioannina Jewish community, foreign diplomats and local dignitaries take part in a memorial service inside Ioannina’s Kahal Kadosh Yashan synagogue to mark 70 years since the Nazi deportations in April 2014 ( Gavin Rabinowitz)

On March 25, 1944, the German Nazi occupiers rounded up the Jews of Ioannina and sent them to Auschwitz.

Only 112 Ioannina Jews survived the death camps. Another 69 escaped the roundup, hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance.

Only some 5,000 Jews remain in Greece today, with around 90% of Greek Jews having been killed in the Holocaust.

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