The Jews of Rhodes and Kahal Shalom Synagogue
by Naomi Scheinerman
Kahal Shalom Synagogue
The Kahal Shalom Synagogue is the only remaining synagogue used for services on the Island of Rhodes and is the oldest in all of Greece. Built in 1577, the synagogue is currently located on Dossiadou and Simiou Streets.
The Synagogue was built in the traditional Sephardic style indicative of the Jews’ ancestors. The Jews in Rhodes are primarily descendents of Jews who fled Spain during the Spanish inquisition. There is a reading table in the center and a women’s balcony that overlooks the lower room of the sanctuary where the men pray. The balcony was built in the 1930’s to replace the backrooms with small latticed barriers that women used to be allotted. The floor of the building has black and white mosaic stones. On the east side of the synagogue is a courtyard containing a plaque with an inscription of the founding date of the synagogue: Kislev, 5338 (1577). On the west side of the synagogue is a courtyard that until World War II held a library. Also on the west site is a plaque with the names of the families killed in the Holocaust. The eastern wall has a unique feature in that at either side of the central door there is an Ehal, a marble niche where the sacred books of the Torah are kept.
The language that the Jews in Rhodes used during the Ottoman Empire was mainly their own Judeo-Spanish language. It was a combination of Castilian dialect and Hebrew as well as Turkish and Greek words and phrases. The language was kept alive through oral communication and written moral treatises, biblical analyses, and poems.
Under the millet system, the Ottoman system for preserving religious minority rights, every Jewish community had schools that provided religious education for boys. As of the 17th century, there were many rabbinical academies and private tutors to further religious studies. In the early 20th century, the community sought the help of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, stressing the need for professional training, language tuition, and women’s education. The AIU helped provide the funds to open a School for Boys and a School for Girls and to cover costs of tuition for those who could not afford it. The schools initially taught Hebrew, Turkish, and French, but after 1923, the AIU schools fell under Italian control and the emphasis became teaching Italian. The Italian government allowed, with the support of Mario Lago, the governor of the island, the creation of the Rabbinical College of Rhodes in 1928. The institution quickly became well-known throughout the Middle East and its pupils became respected rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers, and religious teachers. The school was closed in 1938 due to the rise of fascist and racist policies in Italy.
The Jews of Rhodes lived in a separated, densely populated walled city. Poorer and larger families often lived in mud-brick homes, sometimes two families to one home, while wealthier Jews could afford taller stone homes.
During medieval times and under Ottoman rule, a seven-member council comprised of secular and religious officials administered the community. The community appointed representatives to the Ottoman authorities whose responsibilities included collecting taxes and maintaining order. The community paid the taxes as a whole so that the members could contribute according to their means. As such, special taxes were levied on commodities such as meat, wine, and bread. The rabbi and the rabbinical court held judicial power, which in turn reduced Ottoman influence. The community was active in doing tzedakah and donating to charities, such as B’nai B’rith, Ozer Dalim foundation for the poor, the Fundo Secreto and Bikur Holim for the poor and sick, and the Hevrah Kedosha for funerals. After the war, they helped to financially and physically transport Jews to Palestine.
Rhodes was home to six synagogues. The oldest, Kahal Kodesh Gadol, dated back to the 15th century but was destroyed during WWII. Most of the others were founded in the 19th century. The Jewish Museum of Rhodes was founded in 1997 and houses documents, photographs, and exhibits on the history of the Jewish community in Rhodes. It was renovated from 2004-2006.
The Jews of Rhodes preserved their Sephardic musical traditions, particularly the rare romances (long, narrative ballads from 13th century Spain), epic poetry, and songs sung by women without musical accompaniment, as well as religious and satirical songs. Jews composed moral essays, biblical analyses, and poetry and wrote many fairy tales and jokes. From 1928 to 1936, there was a significant rise in printing activity, including many newspapers and bulletins. The Jews of Rhodes also enjoyed many of the same social activities as the surrounding Gentile communities, including strolls in the park, visiting the theatre and cinema, going to concerts, and joining clubs.
The rise of Zionism during the late 19th century resulted in an influx of emigration to Palestine. Emigration continued throughout the early 20th century, though primarily due to financial and professional reasons rather than ideological visions. As the situation in the Ottoman Empire deteriorated, more people left home. The primary destinations grew to includ the Congo, Zimbabwe, and the United States. Others also went to South America, other countries in Africa, and to Palestine. These immigrants kept in touch with their home community, often returning to Rhodes temporarily to find a bride or visit family. The Jews also did their best to maintain their own heritage and traditions in their new homes. Another sizeable portion of the community emigrated from Rhodes in 1938 and 1939 due to anti-Semitic policies under Italian governance.
The Italian government’s anti-Semitic laws in September 1938 caused 2,000 Jews to flee Rhodes, half the population. Italy allowed Germany to share control of Rhodes. In September 1943, the Italian military surrendered control completely to the Germans. On July 18, 1944, the male Jews of Rhodes aged 16 and older were ordered by the German military to appear with their identity cards and work permits at the Air Force Command Center. The men that assembled the next day were brutalized and threatened. Their permits and ids were taken and they were herded into the basement of the building. On July 19th, the remaining Jewish women and children were ordered to appear with their valuables. Once they did, their valuables were stripped from them. On July 23rd, 1,673 Jews were loaded onto three crowded boats and spent eight miserable days traveling to Greece. Once on the mainland, the Jews were herded into cattle cars and sent to be exterminated at Auschwitz. Only 151 survived. After the war, the 50 people who had survived on account of their Turkish nationality left the island for Turkey, Palestine, Africa or the US. Those who survived the concentration camps were subject to the psychological trauma and social hardships experienced by most other Jews. The community was reestablished in Rhodes thanks in large part to the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece that encouraged and supported twenty Jewish families to settle on Rhodes. In the early 21st century, there were only thirty-seven Jews in all of Rhodes.
Source: Rhodes Jewish Museums