The Greek Jews have a long history going back over 2,300 years to the time of Alexander the Great. They arrived in Ioannina, according to folk belief, when a group swam ashore escaping a Roman slave ship in the year 70. The Greek-speaking Romaniote Jewish community was well-established in Greece when the Jews of Spain, the Sephardim, were expelled in 1492, many moving to Greece to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street on the Lower East Side is the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and was named after Ioannina where the Jewish community thrived for many years. The synagogue with its brick facade decorated with the Ten Commandments and stained glass with the Star of David is also a New York City landmark.
Greek Jews began immigrating to the US in the early 1900’s, like most immigrants, in search of a better life for their children and to escape the turmoil in the Balkans at the time. When the congregation was first founded in 1906, there were hundreds of synagogues on the Lower East Side for Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews and Sephardic Spanish-speaking Jews. The property at 280 Broome Street was purchased to establish a synagogue for the Romaniote Jews to preserve their unique culture and traditions, customs, liturgy, and language. The synagogue opened in 1927, and was dedicated by Rabbi David de Sola Pool, the esteemed leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Central Park West and the oldest Jewish congregation in the US.
Today, though the number of members of the congregation is not known exactly since there is no paid membership, the mailing list for Kehila Kedosha Janina includes 3,000 addresses in the US and 500 abroad. There are enough in attendance to hold services in Hebrew each week on every Shabbat and on the major Jewish holidays. The synagogue is open to the public on Sundays from 11am to 4pm and by appointment for tours. The Museum includes a library, an art gallery, the first Holocaust Memorial to Greek Jews in America, and extensive resources about the Romaniote experience. The restored lower level includes the Dr. Ada Finifter Communal Room and Education Center modeled after a traditional Greek cafe.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos has served as the Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina since 2004 and is on the Board of Trustees of the Synagogue and Museum. She hosts a kosher Greek lunch, tours of the synagogue, and annual trips to Greece for those interested in visiting the places where the Jewish community once thrived, but as she noted in an interview, 87% of Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust. Of those who survived, many emigrated to Israel or the US. Only about 50 returned to Ioannina. The community continues to this day with a generous contribution from Kehila Kedosha Janina, Ikonomopoulos told the Wall Street Journal. The profits from their trips to Greece are also used to help Greek Jews, especially in those communities devastated by the Holocaust.
The incredible resources available at Kehila Kedosha Janina are helping many reconnect with their family history and providing valuable information for anyone interested in Greece and Greek history though the experience of the Romaniote community. As noted on the Kehila Kedosha Janina website, the Jews of Greece constitute the longest continuous Jewish presence in the European Diaspora. Archeologists have unearthed early synagogues and Jewish artifacts in the ancient Agora of Athens, in Thessaloniki, Delos, Crete, Rhodes, and Thessaly. Many descendants are interested in traveling to Greece to learn more about their family history and the place their ancestors called home for more than two millennia.
Current exhibitions at the museum include Memories which features rare photographs, traditional garments, and religious articles the immigrants brought with them to America along with their memories of the Old World. The synagogue’s Torah Arc, the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept, includes a Torah written in Romaniote script. As Ikonomopoulos told the Wall Street Journal, “There are only three in the world. It’s in the traditional Romaniote style of writing. Elongations tell when to pau