When the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Greece to extermination camps, Etty Leon’s grandparents and great-grandparents fled Thessaloniki for Skopelos. On this small island in the Aegean Sea, they were given shelter by a local family that had for many years supplied their soap factory in Thessaloniki with olive oil.
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Walking through Yad Vashem the other day, the 23-year-old stopped dead in her tracks when she caught sight of a photo of her family’s rescuers in the exhibition devoted to Christians who had saved Jews. “It was a very intense moment,” she recounts.
The reason Leon happened to be in Jerusalem that day, rather than in Thessaloniki, where other members of the Greek Jewish community were marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the deportations, was that she was participating in a Taglit-Birthright Israel tour.
It was a Birthright tour with its own special symbolism – the first ever to bring young Jews from Greece to Israel.
Since it was launched 13 years ago, Birthright has brought close to 350,000 young Jewish adults from 62 different countries to Israel on free 10-day trips funded by private philanthropists and the Israeli government. But never once had they come from one of the nearest countries to Israel that still has a significant Jewish population.
It took two enthusiastic young men from Athens with a desire to “reignite the Jewish spirit,” in their words, to change that and to get the ball rolling so that this group of young Greeks would be able to stake claim to what has become almost a rite of passage for their peers across the Jewish Diaspora.
“We’d been on a trip to Argentina, where we met some Jewish kids who told us that they had been on Birthright, and we decided that we needed to do it as well,” recalls Alberto Namias, 24. After he and a friend, Mike Matsas, were elected to head the Jewish youth group of Athens a year ago they immediately began working with Jewish Agency envoys in Greece to organize the trip.
“This was an important way for us to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish world, since our demographics in Greece are pretty bad,” explains Matsas. Indeed, the Jewish community of Greece, which was 77,000 strong before World War II, today barely numbers 5,000. Matsas estimates that the pool of potential Birthrighters in the country – young adults aged 18 to 30 – is only about 500-600.
The 37 participants in this first group come mainly from Athens, with a sprinkling from Thessaloniki, Larrisa and Volos. Mostly in their early 20s, some are still college students while others have begun working full-time.
They’re a close-knit bunch, quite a number of them related either by blood or by friendships that in some cases date back to their pre-teen, Hebrew-school days.
The descendants of a once-thriving Jewish community that lost a larger share of its population than any other during the Holocaust, each of these Birthright participants has a remarkable tale to tell about how his or her family survived.
That explains why, when asked, most say their visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum has been by far the most memorable part of their trip up to now.
It’s a bit chilly on this, the penultimate day of their whirlwind tour of Israel, as they follow their guide around the Old City of Jaffa, the sound of waves crashing against the shore in the background.
“It reminds me a lot of Greece,” says 19-year-old Yvoni Ouziel, an Athenian here on her first trip to Israel. “The climate is very similar, and so are the people. They’re very warm – not like in England.”
It’s been a while since Deliacia Sefina, a college student from Thessaloniki, came here before starting high school. “This time, though, I feel a real connection to the place, maybe because I’m older now,” she says.
For Netta Schechet, one of the group’s Israeli chaperones, this is also a new experience. “Until now, I’ve only worked with Birthright groups from the United States,” she notes. “These Greeks are much more similar to the Israelis. They’re much less punctual and more laid-back. They’re also more curious and introspective than the Americans – maybe because this is all new to them.”
After a 10-minute bus ride they reach their next stop: Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard, the former residence of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and the place where David Ben-Gurion recited Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
It’s time for a group photo, and the participants sit themselves down on the steps of the building, as Namias and Matsas pull out of their bags the Israeli and Greek flags they keep handy for these situations.
Eran, their guide, proceeds to point out that not only the building behind them but also the street before them hold great significance. “This is where Israel’s big social protest movement began two summer ago,” he explains, describing how hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living.
“Is this supposed to make us want to come to Israel?” asks one of the Greek Birthrighters, only half-jokingly. “You don’t have to come to Tel Aviv,” responds Eran. “Move to the south – it’s much cheaper there.”
Immigration – or at least more long-term Israel experiences – is definitely something many of them are considering. A week before landing in Israel the group met with a delegation of representatives from Israeli colleges and universities who came to Athens to try to interest them in the possibility of continuing their studies in Israel.
After their tour of Independence Hall they were scheduled to meet, at their request, with representatives from Masa, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency that offers study, community service and internship programs for young adults in Israel.
The sorry state of the Greek economy has no doubt been a factor, as has rising support for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, which won 7 percent of the national vote in the last election.
“Things are not yet dangerous in Greece, but they’re a little uncomfortable,” acknowledge Matsas, the only member of the group who wore a kippa. And no, he doesn’t cover his head back home in Athens. “It would draw too much attention,” he explains.