ROI Reflections: The road from, and back to, Saloniki

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"I am Salonica," explained Rena Molcho to our group of 30 ROIers and Connection Point participants, eight talented Israelis well-known in the music industry (among them, Berry Sakharof, Ehud Banai and Shai Tzabari), and a team of ten educators from the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva. Molcho is a historian. She led one of the tours and a Jewish history session during the ROI Thessoloniki Delegation in mid December, 2016. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Molcho was one of the first Jewish children born in Thessaloniki, Greece (also known as Salonica), after WWII. She can trace generations of her family's roots in the city; they've been there since the Spanish Inquisition.

Jewish presence in Salonica stems back two thousand years and it was once home to a major Jewish community, mostly Eastern Sephardim. It is the only known example of a city of this size in the diaspora that retained a Jewish majority for centuries. Get a comprehensive and concise overview of this part of our history via this Wikipedia page. In stark contrast to the once bustling Jewish city, aptly nicknamed la madre de Israel (mother of Israel), the war abruptly snuffed out Jewish life: Prior to WWII, more than 50,000 Jews lived in the sea-port city but a mere 2,000 survived, and today the community numbers just 750.

The importance of visiting Thessaloniki with such a vibrant group quickly became apparent; this trip was vitally meaningful to us, and to our ability to connect ourselves and others to Jewish life.

We all learned and gained a great deal from this once-in-a-life-time opportunity and when I say "all," I mean that in the broadest sense: the participants (passionate doers!), the musicians (established singers and celebrities in Israel), our tour guides and teachers, our delegation leaders (ROIer Ariel Levinson, the founder of the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva, and Hedai Ofaim from Routes Travel as well as the Secular Yeshiva team), the local Thessaloniki Jewish community, perhaps even the hotel personnel, and us, the ROI staff. We were transported in time: backwards, and forwards. Suddenly, we became acutely aware of incredible bonds that connect each of us to one another, to our anscestors, and to our future as a People. It was a humbling and moving experience and thanks to the delegation we all felt supported at every step, every turn.

The emotional turbulance we experienced as a group and as individuals is difficult to convey in words… So instead, with a broad brush, I'll try to paint a picture and you'll need to fill in the blanks with your own imagination:

Imagine standing in an old, large and beautiful synagogue, the only one to have "survived" the war intact, outliving the 30-plus other synagogues and 60 private shteibls; you are surrounded by a strong and diverse group of Jews--Sfardi, Ashkenazi, Israeli, Puruvian--all of whom are breathing vibrant Jewish life back into a building that otherwise only opens its doors on High Holidays and for special ceremonies.
Imagine hearing a child sing a Ladino Purim song that was lost long ago.
Imagine holding the hand of a Holocaust survivor, the only one to return to Thessaloniki after the war and be reunited with his entire immediate family (all of the other returning community members came back to incomplete family units).
Imagine getting up in a Greek tavern to sing Hebrew songs with Ehud Banai and Hadas Kleinman.
Imagine forming a circle with a group of fifty wonderful Jewish people, standing on a wharf that was once lined by Jewish fisherman, linking our arms and welcoming singing Kabbalat Shabbat to usher in the Shabbos Queen.

The timing of this trip couldn't have been more perfect. It ended exactly a week before Chanukah begins. And while the unimaginable has transpired since the days when Paul of Tarsus' First Epistle to the Thessalonians first mentioned Hellenized Jews in the city (as early as 52 CE), we stood there as the living proof that we have defied the odds: We still have our culture, religion and connection. We have survived.

Together, we left feeling more committed to developing Jewish life. You are most welcome to join us on our magical journey.

Also read ROIer Analucia Lopezrevoredo's reflections: My Big Fat Greek Connection.

We take this opportunity to thank the delegation leaders who did an incredible job (the team from the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva and Routes Travel) and to express sincere gratitude to the woman who makes all of this possible, Lynn Schusterman, and to her family and team, our colleagues.