LARNACA, Cyprus —Only 45 minutes by plane from Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean beach resort of Larnaca boasts the world’s closest functioning synagogue to Israel.
Home to 3,500 Jews, the predominantly Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus is currently enjoying an unprecedented boom in Israeli tourism. And Larnaca’s newly inaugurated Jewish Community Center of Cyprus — located a few blocks from the town’s Byzantine-era Church of Saint Lazarus — doubles as headquarters of the island’s Chabad-Lubavitch network, which now has five branches throughout the country.
On September 13, Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin dedicated the house of worship along with 200 Jews, as well as local government dignitaries, religious leaders and diplomats from 10 countries.
All watched with awe as the rabbi unveiled a World War II-era Quonset hut, similar to the kind the British used to house some 53,000 Jewish refugees in Cyprus between 1946 and 1949. Yiorgios Lakkotrypis, the country’s minister of energy, commerce, industry and tourism, then symbolically laid soil at the site of what will be the Jewish Museum of Cyprus.
“Many Cypriots have never visited Israel,” said Raskin. “They know it’s a holy place, and they know about Jerusalem and Nazareth. So this museum isn’t only for locals, but for Arabs too. It’s the only way for us to build a bridge to the Arab world, and definitely Arabs will come.”
The five-story museum, covering 300 square meters (3,230 square feet) of exhibit space per floor, will utilize virtual reality technology that lets a visitor “be in” and experience the holy sites of Israel, walk around the Cyprus internment camps and get a sense of the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust. The building will boast 10 such virtual reality exhibits at a cost of 500,000 euro (about NIS 2.1 million) each. (Raskin declined to comment on how and by whom the new JCC and planned museum were funded.)
Also attending the inauguration was Larnaca Mayor Andreas Vyras, whose city of 70,000 is the third-largest on the island after Nicosia, its capital, and Limassol, its main port.
“The Jewish community is very active,” Vyras told The Times of Israel. “We already get a lot of Israeli visitors and investment, and we expect the museum will be a big tourism attraction.”
Expected to open by 2020, the project represents a total commitment of at least 9 million euro (about NIS 37.8 million) — all of it to be raised entirely by private, anonymous donations.
The building, whose entrance is designed to resemble the back of a man wearing a prayer shawl, will rise on a piece of land adjacent to the existing JCC, which contains a prayer sanctuary, a religious school, a kosher grocery, two restaurants and a hotel.
Among other things, the planned museum will offer visitors a glimpse of several rare 19th-century Torah scrolls confiscated by the Nazis and stored for decades at a Soviet military installation east of Moscow. The scrolls will be loaned to the museum, which was conceived of by Raskin and Sibyl Silver, director of the Cleveland-based Jewish Heritage Foundation.
Raskin, interviewed at his synagogue office on Larnaca’s Apollodorou Street, said that despite the presence of 630 Jewish families (including 3,000 people) who live in Cyprus permanently, the island is home to only 25 families of Cypriot origin. The rest are mostly foreign business executives, along with a few elderly British citizens with relatives here.
“They find it a very welcoming country. It’s very peaceful and close to Israel,” he said. “With a British passport, you’re like a local. Here it’s more expensive than the Turkish-occupied area, but the cost of living is still half that of Israel — only 350 euro (NIS 1,470) for average monthly rent. It’s meshugeh [crazy].”
That could explain why so many Israelis business executives live in Cyprus from Monday to Thursday, then fly home for the weekend. Many work in the financial or gaming industry. (When asked, Raskin would not comment on whether the increasingly outlawed binary options companies are among them.)
Besides Israelis, Cyprus is also home to a smattering of Russian, French and American Jews.
“We have a daily minyan [prayer quorum] full of people in all the major cities,” said Raskin, 41, a native of Kiryat Malachi who managed a shopping mall in Ashdod before becoming a rabbi.
He and his wife, Shaindl, have been living in Larnaca for the past 15 years. They have eight children, four of them born on the island.
“All our Chabad branches are open to everyone. Here we see the love of Am Yisrael [the Jewish nation] big-time,” said Raskin. “Here we feel the legacy of the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson], who taught us that you cannot fight darkness with more darkness. Even the kitzonim [extremists] who come here on vacation change their views over Shabbos.”
Warm Israeli-Cypriot relations
Cyprus, with a population of nearly 1.2 million, has had a Jewish presence going back to Roman times, though for most of its history it has been relatively devoid of Jews.
Yet in the aftermath of WWII, some 53,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors hoping to emigrate to Palestine crowded into British internment camps in Cyprus, which until 1960 was a British colony. Some 2,200 Jewish children were born in those camps between August 1946 and February 1949, when they were closed.
That experience will form the centerpiece of the museum, and will tell the stories of people like Prodramus Papavassilious, a Cypriot businessman and customs agent who defied British colonial rule after WWII and risked his life to help smuggle Jews to Palestine.
“He would never talk about his illegal activities,” said his son, Christakis Papavassiliou, managing director of Shoham Cyprus Ltd., a shipping company in Limassol. “My father was an active trade unionist before the war, and my father joined the Cyprus regiment of the British Army in 1942. But after the war ended, the British themselves created camps for these same people they fought to rescue.”
Among other things, the elder Papavassiliou — who died in 2006 — helped Jews escape the detention camps by digging tunnels under the barbed wire fences surrounding them. He was also in charge of one clandestine operation to smuggle young Jews out in wooden crates and transport them to waiting ships on the coast.
Earlier this year, the city of Haifa honored Papavassiliou by naming a square, Kikar Papa, after him. The inscription on the memorial reads: “A Greek Cypriot and a brave humanist who risked his life helping Holocaust refugees who were deported to the detention camps in Cyprus during 1946-49. Recipient of the State Warriors Decoration and the Carmel Award of Merit.”
Today, the vast majority of Greek-speaking Cypriots practice Orthodox Christianity; besides Jews, the island is home to small numbers of Armenians, Latins and Maronites.
Jewish life centers around the five Chabad centers. Besides Larnaca, there are also synagogues in Nicosia, Paphos, Limassol and Ayia Napa.
Cyprus also has three kosher hotels — an important consideration, said Raskin, given that one-third of the Israelis who visit the island keep kosher. But because of complicated European Union regulations, Raskin may not import kosher beef or chicken from Israel. Rather, he has to buy those products from suppliers in Belgium, Poland and other EU member states.
Kosher wine is available locally, however, and Cyprus is the only country in the world — other than Israel itself — whose wine is specifically mentioned in the Talmud. Raskin supervises production of the Ya’in Kafrisin (Cypriot Wine) line at the Lambouri winery near Limassol.
The changing political landscape has also boded well for Israeli-Cypriot diplomatic ties.
“I remember the previous governments of Cyprus. They did not have a good relationship with Israel,” Raskin said. “They were communists and sided with the Arabs. They didn’t even attend Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Israeli Independence Day] celebrations. But this government is building relationships on a daily basis. We see progress at all levels.”
The progress is also seen by Thessalia Salina Shambos, Nicosia’s ambassador in Tel Aviv for the past three years. She said her country’s ties with Israel have warmed considerably in light of Israel’s strained ties with Turkey, which has occupied 37 percent of Cyprus ever since its 1974 military invasion of the island.
“When Israel signed the normalization agreement with Turkey back in 2016, one main variable was that the strategic value of the Cyprus-Israel relationship should be left intact,” said Shambos. “Cyprus and Israel share the same democratic values, we both have a Judeo-Christian background, and we see eye to eye on energy, security and defense.”
Israelis flocking to Cyprus
In 1995, the year the Cyprus Tourism Organization (CTO) opened its office in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center, just 30,000 Israelis boarded flights to the nearby island; at that time, the only airlines operating between the two countries were El Al and Cyprus Airways. But since then, a bilateral “open skies” agreement has reduced prices and expanded tourism dramatically — especially in winter months.
This year, more than 300,000 Israelis are expected to visit Cyprus by air, up from 265,000 in 2017. El Al, Cyprus Airways, Ryanair and Arkia all operate from Ben-Gurion International Airport, while Ayit offers charter flights to Larnaca from Tel Aviv’s municipal airport, Sde Dov, and Tus plans flights from Haifa to both Larnaca and Paphos.
Among other things, the CTO managed to convince the Israel Travel Agents Association to hold its 2018 convention November 27-29 in the beach resort of Paphos.
“Here you don’t have bombs going off, and you don’t have crazy people driving on the highways,” said Roland Wig, a Jew of Hungarian origin who runs the Lambouri Winery. “It’s a very friendly country, and you don’t even need to speak Greek.”
In all, Cyprus receives about 3.5 million tourists annually. Included in that mix are thousands of visitors from Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And during the 1980s, Cyprus was a nearby refuge for Lebanese fleeing that country’s devastating civil war (Lebanon, incidentally, is home to Beirut’s Magen Avraham Synagogue — which is closer to Israel than the Beit Chabad in Larnaca — but the newly restored synagogue doesn’t hold active Jewish services).
Today, Israel and Lebanon constitute the island’s main market for civil unions, which are recognized when conducted abroad but not performed in either country. In 2016, Cyprus authorities performed 7,169 such ceremonies, including many for Israeli same-sex couples, according to Nana Asmeni Pavlou, director of the tourist office in Larnaca, which hosted 39% of those ceremonies.
In fact, last year Israel ranked as the third-largest source of tourism to Cyprus, behind Great Britain and Russia — and ahead of Germany and Greece, according to CTO statistics. A good portion of these Israelis, however, are headed for casinos in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which enjoys diplomatic recognition by only one country in the world: Turkey.
Since no direct flights exist between Israel and the so-called TRNC, tourists must either fly from Tel Aviv into Larnaca and cross overland, or fly to Turkey, and from there to an airport in the north. About 40 casinos operate in the TRNC, though Cyprus recently approved casino gambling and now plans Europe’s largest casino — the 500 million euro (roughly $567 million) City of Dreams project just outside Limassol.
“I cannot tell you not to cross [into the Turkish-occupied zone], because obviously it’s not a different country,” said Shambos. “We’re not going to stop you, but if you cross, you’ll be staying in expropriated Greek Cypriot property and supporting the Turkish Cypriot economy. That’s why it’s illegal to stay overnight in the occupied territories.”
The ambassador added: “We’ve been stopping quite a few Israelis randomly. If you do that, you’re violating European and international law. You go at your own risk.”
Raskin said he understands the emotions of Greek-speaking Cypriots when they encounter Israelis planning to gamble at casinos in the occupied north.
“The travel agents are trying to sell tourism and casinos, and they are very aggressive, but when tourists ask if it’s a problem to visit the north, they say no. But people don’t understand the sensitivity,” said Raskin. “I tell them, it’s like you’re landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, the authorities ask you where going to stay, and you say ‘Gaza.’ This is how the Cypriots look at it. This didn’t happen 2,000 years ago; it’s still going on. And they live the pain every day.”
An abandoned Jewish cemetery containing 35 destroyed gravestones sits about 10 miles north of Nicosia, in the Turkish-occupied zone near Margo. Raskin has been there once to say the kaddish memorial prayer, but hasn’t been able to return since.
“We’ve tried several times, through the UN and through embassies and governments, to at least restore the gravestones, which are in pieces,” Raskin said. “But we were turned away several times. There was nobody to talk to.”
The Cyprus Tourism Organization provided lodging in Larnaca and transportation within the island for this report.