It’s All Greek to Them

A Romaniote Synagogue on the Lower East Side Revives Itself

By Ronald Drenger

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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The Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue has survived for years in relative obscurity, much like the distinct community of Jews that worships there. Located at 280 Broome Street on New York’s Lower East Side, the historic two-story gem is the only synagogue of Romaniote Jews in the Western Hemisphere, and it has the sparse attendance to prove it. The synagogue struggles to maintain its Orthodox services, held only on Saturdays and holidays. Sabbath services draw barely two-dozen worshippers. But a small group of committed congregants is working hard to preserve the synagogue, teach its history, and keep alive the culture and traditions of Romaniote Jewry, a tiny 2,000-year-old branch of Judaism that is separate from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities.

Last week the synagogue was designated a city landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it received a Lucy G. Moses preservation award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy in honor of the recently completed restoration of the building’s brick facade, stained-glass windows and skylights. The refurbishing was done with the help of a $50,000 grant from New York State and a $70,000 loan from the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The synagogue has become a popular destination for Lower East Side Conservancy tours, and attendance at its museum is growing, boosted by the recent resurgence of interest in the Jewish Lower East Side.

“[This group] knew that the synagogue could just evaporate like some other distinguished and noted places did,” said Holly Kaye, founder and former executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy, who joined the congregation’s board.

Immigrants from the Greek town of Ioannina, who were part of a thriving Greek Jewish community on the Lower East Side, founded the congregation in 1906. Legend has it that the Romaniotes descend from a group of Jews who were being transported in a slave ship from Israel to Rome after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. After a shipwreck off the west coast of Greece, as the story goes, they swam to shore. But historians believe that some Jews probably settled 300 years earlier in Greece, where they developed unique customs and their own Judeo-Greek language.

The museum was the inspiration of Isaac Dostis, 65, who attended the synagogue as a child and rejoined in 1995, after visiting Greece to research his Romaniote roots. He installed display cases with old Romaniote religious articles and texts, and covered the walls with photos and maps on Romaniote culture and history.

“Outside of the Jewish Museum in Athens, which has a large amount of Ioannina and Romaniote artifacts, we are the only place that tells the story of Romaniote Jewry,” said Dostis, an actor, filmmaker and writer who lives in Lake Hiawatha, N.J., and was the museum’s director until last year. “It’s important because Romaniote Jews are a dying community.” He estimates that there are fewer than 10,000 Romaniotes in the world today.

The museum’s creation sparked a broader effort. The synagogue launched a newsletter and created a board of directors, and museum representatives organize lectures, films screenings, slide shows, cooking workshops and beginner Greek classes. An afternoon of Greek music was offered May 16, and a Greek Jewish film festival is scheduled for May 23.

“If we lose the active, regular services, at least the building and museum will survive,” said Hyman Genee, 82, the synagogue’s longtime president.

But the synagogue has not given up on its services. Board members are required to attend at least once a month, and pledge cards are sent out to a long mailing list, asking recipients to commit to one Saturday service during the year –– what board member Leonard Colchamiro calls the “Be a Minyanaire” campaign.

Marvin Marcus, 56, comes every Saturday from Brooklyn Heights with his 12-year-old son. Another congregant, Marc Winthrop, 40, a native Minnesotan who lives on the Upper East Side, discovered his Romaniote heritage as an adult via a trip to Greece. His mother, a Holocaust survivor from Greece, had believed she was Sephardic. Winthrop got involved in 2000 and now attends Saturday services and leads Sunday museum tours about once a month.

“Sometimes I feel guilty putting so much time and effort into my mother’s history, not my father’s,” said Winthrop, whose father is Ashkenazic. “But there are a lot of people from Ashkenazi backgrounds who will keep that alive. We don’t have that on the Romaniote side. I don’t want to lose my mom’s story.”

And the effort extends even beyond the Lower East Side. Dan Levy, 54, whose grandfather was a rabbi at the shul in the 1930s and 1940s, lives near Albany. But when his son was preparing for his bar mitzvah, Levy asked Hyman Genee to teach him the Romaniote tunes for Shabbat prayers.

“It’s a beautiful circling,” Levy said, “that Hy, who learned from my grandfather, would teach my oldest.” Morris, in turn, taught his two younger brothers for their bar mitzvahs.

Ronald Drenger is a freelance journalist in New York.

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