A Visit to Rhodes

A blog post by Volunteer Coordinator Ilene Cohen. To see more posts from Ilene click here.

While recently on vacation in Turkey and Greece I had the opportunity to visit the Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Rhodes, Greece.

The Kahal Shalom is the oldest Jewish synagogue in Greece, and the sole remaining synagogue on the Island of Rhodes used for services. It is located in the Jewish Quarter (called “La Juderia”) and is believed to have been built in the year 1577. The full name of the building is “Kahal Kadosh Shalom” (Holy Congregation of Peace).  Our docent, Schmuel Modiano, was a survivor of Birkenau.  He spoke to a group of visitors, similar to the way the JMM arranges for Holocaust survivors speak to visiting groups.

The Jewish community of Rhodes has an historical background dating back to ancient times. During the past five hundred years, the background of the Jews of Rhodes was influenced principally by the Jews who fled Spain at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Large numbers of Sephardim traveled across the Mediterranean Sea to the Island of Rhodes, as well as other cities such as Salonica, Istanbul and Izmir. During its height in the 1930’s, the Jewish community had a population of approximately 4,000 people.

The interior of the Kahal Shalom synagogue follows the traditional Sephardic style of having the bima in the center of the sanctuary facing southeast toward Jerusalem. The floor is decorated with graceful black and white mosaic stone patterns, which is a distinctive design motif used throughout the Old City of Rhodes.  One decorative pattern includes the year 5601 or 1840-41.  An intriguing feature of the Kahal Shalom sanctuary is that it is decorated with numerous religious wall paintings.

During the 1930’s, a balcony was built in the Kahal Shalom sanctuary for seating of the women. Prior to that time the women sat in rooms adjoining the south wall of the synagogue. The women’s prayer rooms  viewed the sanctuary through windowed openings adorned by latticework.

In the courtyard on the east side of the synagogue, there is a plaque above where a water fountain once existed, and it bears an inscription dated the month of Kislev, 5338 (1577). Apparently, this fountain was constructed at the same time as the synagogue. On the west side of the synagogue there was a religious school, however it was destroyed during World War II.

Today there are about 40 Jews living in Rhodes, who practice their religion in the Synagogue.  However, it is worth mentioning that the Synagogue is also open to the public that visit it because of its great historic and architectural interest. In 2002 the Municipality approved the erection of a Monument of the Victims of the Holocaust in the Jewish Martyrs square, in the place where the Jewish quarter used to be. The Jewish cemetery of the island is still preserved.

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