Chaírete! That was the first Greek word I learned in preparation for what would be a deeply rewarding and multi-sensory cross-cultural group experience. The word itself is used on a daily basis to say “hello,” but it also means, “be happy.” It’s also pronounced like the Spanish and Ladino word Quiérete/Kyerete, meaning, “love yourself!” Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Upon learning that an ROI delegation to Thessaloniki was being created, I immediately reached out and applied. Not only am I ardently passionate about the Jewish diaspora, I’m passionate about connecting with people, communities, and my roots. While I come from a Sephardic background and have spent the last 10 years working on becoming fluent in Ladino, my direct descendants are not from Thessaloniki. As a Jew, however, I believe our roots are one in the same. Whether you’re Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, or Sephardic, whether you’re an American, Israeli, or Peruvian Jew (like me), we’re family. And to me it’s important to discover, celebrate, and support the different facets that make up our global Jewish community.
While I had an idea of what we were going to be doing, I didn’t really know what to expect when I got to Thessaloniki. I knew I was going to be learning about what was once the largest Jewish community in Greece, that I was going to be facilitating a Ladino lesson for our group, and that it was going to be cold. What I didn’t realize was that 40+ people---most of whom were strangers--would become an extension of my family, that I was going to be singing, dancing and drinking ouzo every single night, and that I was going to wrap up the experience feeling even more inspired to create beautiful things. I guess this should have been expected. After all, when you get Secular Yeshiva of Jerusalem organizing something, and the Schusterman Foundation/ROI Community sponsoring it, greatness is essentially guaranteed.
Our time in Thessaloniki spanned the course of a long weekend. Carefully curated, the experience was informative and enlightening, and also active and experiential. We spent time learning about Jewish migration patterns in the Balkans, rabbinical works that emerged in the region, and Ladino language and culture. We travelled through time walking the streets of Thessaloniki, visiting the two remaining synagogues in the city, and important buildings that housed institutions once owned and operated by Jews. We commemorated the 48,000 lives lost in the Shoah, stopping at the holocaust museum and holocaust memorial, and partook in what would be one of the most memorable Kabbalat Shabbat experiences by the namal, the Port of Thessaloniki. Our learning, however, did not end there.
Day after day, and night after night, we made sure to immerse ourselves as best we could. We indulged in Grecian fare, played music and sang songs with the locals, and thanks to the magic of Ouzo, many of us managed to dance better than Zorba the Greek. Needless to say, what made this experience phenomenal was that it challenged and nourished all of our senses. We weren’t just memorizing facts, we were seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting Thessaloniki, and that awoke in me my sixth sense—my spirit.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent the better half of ten years learning Ladino. My interest in learning the pan-Mediterranean language used by many of our Sephardic ancestors, and dubbed erroneously by many as “dead,” came not from a desire to learn a new language, but rather from a desire to connect my spirit to everything that has come before me. Being a part of the ROI delegation to Thessaloniki was not only a continuation of that connection, but also an inspiration to continue preserving and producing culture, as well as continue connecting with our global Jewish community. I want to thank the entire Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva and Routes Travel team for putting this experience together, Lynn Schusterman, ROI Community and the Schusterman Foundation for making it happen, my fellow peers that shared in this experience with me, and of course my OneTable family for indulging me in my passion for immersive learning and covering for me while I was gone.
As I sit and think about how I will share what I’ve learned on this trip with my community back home, I hope that above everything else I can inspire them to connect with the Diaspora and creatively remember those that have come before us. In the meantime, those in San Francisco can mark their calendars for a Greek themed Shabbat in the spring that will invite their many senses to experience the magic of Thessaloniki.