Progress at Etz Hayyim, 20 January – 6 February
After the second arson at the Synagogue we were deluged with reporters, requests for interviews and of course – letters from friends from all over the world. The latter were especially welcome as one by necessity suddenly felt quite alone and a bit confused. I know that my reactions when coming to the synagogue in the mornings after the fires were almost like a déjà vu…reminding me especially of the early stages of the reconstruction between 1996 and 1999. There were moments, however, when I seem to have gotten the two fires quite intertwined and worse, when one day I woke up thinking about a notebook that I thought I had left in my office at home and then remembered with some relief that in fact I had left it on my desk in the office of the synagogue and then, to top this, remembered that I had taken it after the first fire to Alex’s office where I had last seen it sitting on the corner of his desk – and of course, then realizing that there was no notebook left as Alex’s office had been gutted completely!
Despite everything we actually managed to get down to serious work on the day after the second fire. The carpenter was called in again, the Archaeological Department of Hania came twice and we assessed what had to be done…but the atmosphere was very tense as the police had yet to find the culprits. By late afternoon of the first day after the second fire the engineer came to assess what had to be done on the gutted offices. Fortunately, Anja, our librarian, with the help of volunteers had moved all of the books (some 800) out of the small library (which had just been repainted the day before the second fire) into the Synagogue. After the second fire they were taken to safe keeping elsewhere as they were covered with soot pending their being examined and cleaned; so they were not lost but everything else, including the entire contents of Alex’s office downstairs had been destroyed. I spent a good amount of time with the police that day and we even examined the path of entry into the north courtyard that the arsonists had used and it was obvious (finally) that the windows in the adjacent café had to be blocked up (which I had requested a number of times) and that the walls be given an elevation by means of iron fencing. Late that day we went over what this would entail and Sam Cohen, a member of our community, who is an excellent iron-monger drew up a plan. By this time as well Alex had been set up in an emergency office in the kitchen of a friend and Anja was hard at work making out as complete a list as possible of all of the damaged books with the help of David Webber, also a member of our community. As this was going on Besnik and his cousin Artan had brought in the scaffolding and set it up in the interior of the synagogue proper as it had been hosed down by fire- department. I had already after the first fire removed all of the Siphrei Torah from the Ehal as well as the rimonim etc. to safe-keeping. Scraping down the walls and ceiling began the day after the fire and the carpenter set himself to setting in the new stair to my office that had been destroyed in the first fire. All through that week we had little time to think about much more than what we were doing and we were brought back to the reality of what we were doing when it was announced that the arsonists had been arrested.
1-6 February – work on the synagogue continued at a good pace and our goal was to have the synagogue proper in preparation for a visit of Jews from various communities on the Mainland. The entire site looks much as it did in the early period of work that was carried out between 1996 and 1999 though the appearances differ greatly as the front street is littered with piles of burnt wood from the ceiling, burned beams from the offices and scraps of iron etc. There are also the boxes of ruined books that are destined to be buried as our genizah is too small to handle them. Early in the week I was told that we would have a visit of Jews from the mainland, which was being organized by Elias Nahmias as a show of support and with this end in mind we set ourselves to getting at least the Kal proper in order as much as we could. Early on Friday morning Besnik and Artan moved the scaffolding to the side and Garoufalia, Angelika, Angela, Anja, and Gerry worked at cleaning the floors of building debris, polishing the benches and provisionally arranging the cushions. Rabbi Isaac Mizan arrived in advance of the group at mid-day and we more or less organized the next day’s Sabbath Shahrith service and shortly before lighting of the nerot Sabbath Sam and Lorenzo brought the Siphrei Torah from where we had them in safe-keeping and they were installed in the ehal and the ner tamid lit again. Rabbi Mizan said minha prayers and at 6:15 I began the initial psalms for Kabbalat Shabbat. Already a trickle of people had appeared and, as is our custom at Etz Hayim, sections of the Shema were read by various people. It was a quiet service though we had some 20 people or so for Kiddush.
The following morning Rabbi Mizan began Shahrith prayers at 9:00 and by 10:00 the synagogue was filled with our guests – some 130 of them, from Athens, Saloniki and some even from Ioannina and Larissa as well as members of the Havurah. ‘Gitro’ is a comparatively short parashah and though we lacked a Levi we did have two Cohanim – our Sam as well as Jean Cohen from Athens and Lorenzo was given the third reading as ‘ben Israel’. The president of the Athens Jewish Community Mr Albala gave a short talk the highlight of which was his revealing the pragmatic real reason for the support of his community in Athens which was to associate our synagogue with Beth Shalom Synagogue in Athens as sisters. Somehow the atmosphere became changed at this point and what had been a somber beginning amidst the remnants of the two attacks became a very Judaeo-Greek celebration that included some Ladino songs led by Jaki BenMayor and then followed by several in Hebrew with much clapping of hands and by the end of the service members of our havurah had prepared a table with sweets, ouzo, wine and tsikoudhia and after Kiddush by R. Mizan everyone was brought into the community as well as some of our workers and the attendant police. All of us then – 130 or so – made our way through the streets to meet with the vice-mayor of Hania at his offices and a small contingent went with Mr Albala who presented our reminder of who we were, and what Etz Hayyim is – not only as a synagogue and place of Jewish prayer but also as one of the jewels of the old city of Hania. The mayor in turn thanked us and made clear the determination of the city of Hania to protect our presence as well as our legacy in the city which he described as ‘our synagogue’.
By late that afternoon our guests had all but left Hania and on Sunday morning we had Shahrith prayers as usual –with of course a quite diminished community but with renewed energy from our brothers and sisters from the Mainland.
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