Ralph Gardner visits Kehila Kedosha Janina, a synagogue on the Lower East Side
The second floor women’s gallery at Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a New York City landmark. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 27, 2016 8:22 p.m. ET
Not only was I unfamiliar with Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a New York City landmark, but I’d never heard the term Romaniote Judaism.
It’s a community of Greek Jews more than 2,000 years old. They came to the U.S. starting in the early 1900s; the synagogue on the Lower East Side opened in 1927.
All of this was explained to me by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, who is director of the synagogue’s museum.
Ms. Ikonomopoulos hosts a combination Greek kosher lunch and synagogue tour as well as annual trips to Greece.
“Eighty-seven percent of Greek Jews perished during the Holocaust,” she explained.
Kehila Kedosha Janina has a mailing list of 3,000 households in the U.S. and 500 abroad, Ms. Ikonomopoulos said as she unlocked the synagogue, which is open to the public on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. “Most have at least one connection to this community.”
The building’s beige brick facade is decorated with the Ten Commandments and stained-glass windows surmounted by the Star of David. The museum was carved out of the second-floor women’s gallery—men and women sit apart from each other in Orthodox congregations.
Services, in Hebrew, are held every Shabbat and on all major Jewish holidays, Ms. Ikonomopoulos explained.
Synagogue museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Geographically isolated, the community developed traditions and remained Greek speaking even after the post-1492 influx of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition.
Ms. Ikonomopoulos said it’s impossible to say how many belong to the congregation because there isn’t paid membership. However, there are enough members to hold services and everyone is welcome. “We have become the center for Romaniote Judaism in the world,” she added.
The synagogue, which was renovated with the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s architecturally significant buildings, was dedicated in 1927 by Rabbi David de Sola Pool. Rabbi Pool was the esteemed leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Central Park West and the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S.
The synagogue is long and narrow; the bema, the podium used for Torah reading during services, is in the center of the sanctuary. However, the Torah Arc, the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept, is at the north end of the building. It includes a Torah written in Romaniote script.
“There are only three in the world,” Ms. Ikonomopoulos said as she carefully unrolled the parchment scroll. “It’s in the traditional Romaniote style of writing,” with elongation marks. “Elongations tell when to pause.”
The profits from the tours to Greece are used to help Greek Jews, especially those communities devastated by the Holocaust. “We also give a generous contribution to the Jewish community of Ioannina,” which has few members remaining, she said.
While there’s something slightly melancholy about the synagogue and its artifacts—including one member’s 1890 wedding gown and the names of its 1927 board of directors etched in marble over the door—it’s moving that the community survives at all.
And Ms. Ikonomopoulos said Kehila Kedosha Janina’s attractive blue T-shirts sell very well.