This blog post is contributed by Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum.
Romaniote Jews, the indigenous Jews of Greece, have lived on Greek soil for over 2,300 years and have the distinction of the longest, continuous Jewish presence in the European Diaspora. They established communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, settling along the shores of the Sea and along inland trade routes. By the 1st century C.E., communities were present in Thessaloniki, Verroia, Corinthos, Patras, Athens, and Rhodes, as attested to by the writings of St. Paul, a Hellenzied Jew who preached the new religion of Christianity from the bemas of existing synagogues throughout the Mediterranean, many of which were in what is now part of Greece. In 324 C.E. when Constantine the Great moved the capital of Rome from the city of Rome to a city on the Bosphorus (Constantinople) he inherited the Greek speaking Jews who had lived there for over five hundred years. Now part of the Roman Empire, they called themselves Romaniotes.
Kehila Kedosha Janina was first organized in 1906 by Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews from the city of Ioannina in northwestern Greece. In the early twentieth century there were hundreds of other synagogues on the Lower East Side that mostly served Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews or Sephardic Spanish-speaking Jews. Needing a place of their own where they could preserve their unique traditions, customs, liturgy and language, property was purchased at 280 Broome Street, and the congregation opened its doors to worship at its current location in 1927. For the past 89 years KKJ has served the Romaniote community on the Lower East Side and, after the closing of nearby Sephardic synagogues, many of the remaining neighborhood Sephardim. In 1997, a Museum was created in the women’s gallery to tell the story of this distinct community to a world that knew so little about them. Today KKJ is one of the only a handful of active synagogues that remain on the Lower East Side.
Like many other immigrant groups, the Lower East Side was the original landing point for Greek, Turkish, and other Balkan Jews who came to America at the turn of the century. After World War II, many of the younger members of the Romaniote and Sephardic community on the Lower East Side followed the typical path of upward mobility at the time by moving to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or the suburbs of Long Island in search of a home of their own with more space than the cramped tenements of the Lower East Side. Some members stayed and watched as the signs of storefronts changed from English and Yiddish, to Spanish, to Chinese, and now to anything and everything else.
The fact that our physical synagogue building survived and was sustained by our inimitable President Hy Genee for 50 years is a testament to his determination and that of our entire small but tight-knit community to perpetuate our unique heritage despite dispersion, assimilation, and neighborhood change. You can see from our synagogue facade in the 1930’s (from the municipal archives), the 1990’s, and today how our building and community has endured many years of ups and downs, but we are so proud to remain to tell the story of all of our ancestors who once lived on the blocks of Broome St, Allen St, Orchard St, Delancey St, Rivington St, and others.
Today as new populations and young people return to the Lower East Side, the history and footsteps that people feel when they walk into our sanctuary speaks to this strong spirit of survival and tradition. As people search for authenticity and trace their own heritage, we serve as a reminder to take pride in who you are and never forget where you come from. Today, Kehlia Kedosha Janina sits between a Chinese wholesale food distributor and a glass store, a happy, incongruent, New York scene.
Kehila Kedosha Janina is proud to be the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. We are a small but tight-knit community, and we continually open our doors to visitors to provide both a spiritual home as well as a place to learn about Greek Jewish history. The Greek Jewish Festival on May 22 is an effort to not only preserve our unique culture, but to also celebrate and develop new ways of expressing what it means to be a Romaniote or Sephardic Jew. We welcome all people to come celebrate and share in this journey with us.