A popular tourist destination, especially for Israelis, gets a new Chabad center and restaurant
More than 150,000 Israelis travel every year to the Greek island of Rhodes, deep in the Aegean Sea, less than a two-hour plane ride away from home. While they have plenty of beautiful beaches and historic spots to check out, including a museum detailing more than 2,000 years of Jewish history on Rhodes, for those who keep kosher, there hasn’t been so much to eat.
For years, Rabbi Mendel Hendel, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Athens, Greece, has been supplementing the canned goods and packaged food that kosher travelers would lug to the island by sending kosher meals to Rhodes’ visitors at their hotels via an even shorter one-hour flight within the country. An Israeli himself, he and his wife, Nehama, have lived in Athens for 16 years.
The food situation is about to change when Israeli natives Rabbi Uri and Devora Lea Medina move there in April, starting Chabad of Rhodes and opening a kosher restaurant soon after Passover. The expectation is that the restaurant will not only provide kosher meals to the many Israelis who flock to the island, but also serve as a gathering place for Jewish visitors from around the world.
“We realize it will be a challenge, including financially at first, but we’re sure it will work,” Rabbi Medina tells Chabad.org. This is their shlichus, he points out, and they are leaving Israel with the positive faith and entrepreneurial goals associated with Chabad couples everywhere. “We believe the restaurant is going to be a good and welcome addition, and that people are going to appreciate it.”
A small Jewish community now exists on the island, which has 43 towns and villages with a total population of about 100,000. But its roots go all the way back to the first century.
The Jewish heyday was in the 1920s; the community even had a rabbinical college there, according to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes, which was established in 1997 to preserve the Jewish history and culture of the area. But in 1938, the Italian governor who controlled the island implemented anti-Jewish laws, which prompted more than 2,000 Jews to leave. Six years later, more than 1,600 Jews were forced to board a ship to the Greek mainland, where they were forcibly held, with the majority then sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
Today, 15 to 20 Jewish families live in Rhodes, according to Hendel.
The museum is housed at the Kahal Shalom synagogue in La Juderia, the Jewish Quarter. The oldest synagogue in Greece, it dates back to the Ottoman era, to 1577. “The president, Bella Restis, and the director, Carmen Cohen, are doing an amazing job in keeping it vibrant and very active,” reports Hendel.
Even if Jews from Rhodes have lived abroad for years, he continues, they remain connected and attached to life on the island—often coming to visit, and to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings, in the synagogue.
‘Can’t Believe You Are Here!’
The Medinas, both 28 with two young children, rented a house last summer in Rhodes. They began to prepare kosher food and deliver it to visitors around the island. They returned for the High Holidays, when on Rosh Hashanah they were pleased to have drawn more than 150 guests for the holiday dinner.
Jerusalem resident Ari H. was one of them. He spent the fall holidays in Rhodes—one of several times he has been to the island—and was enthused to see so many Jews gathered around the table. The addition of a Chabad House and kosher restaurant in Rhodes means there’s more Jewish life on its way: “To me, the most important thing is that there is a place where Jews can come and connect, where they can have kosher food and a Jewish experience.”
He adds that their presence will benefit many “by having a kosher vacation spot so close to Israel.”
During their time there, the Medinas cooked a mix of Greek food, as well as popular Israeli dishes like schnitzel and “chips” (French fries).
Tourists were so excited, reports Devora Medina: “They said, ‘We can’t believe you are here! It’s so necessary.’ We felt that we hadn’t even really gotten to the island, and we already had such a special mission to complete.”
While making deliveries to hotels, the rabbi managed to gather visitors together for a Torah lesson as well. Once the couple is settled in, they will host regular Shabbat and holiday meals, Torah study and other classes.
The restaurant will jump-start all that’s to follow.
“It really connects us with people,” says Devora Medina. “First, we’ll help them with basic things, and then, through the food, they’ll want to hear about Shabbat and Torah.”
By: Eric Berger