Volunteering at Etz Hayyim, the Last Remaining Synagogue in Crete Gwen Ellis in Etz Hayyim Library
04 Mar 2020

Volunteering at Etz Hayyim, the Last Remaining Synagogue in Crete

During her January term, full-year student Gwen Ellis volunteered in Chania, Crete at the Etz Hayyim synagogue, the last Jewish monument remaining on the island. During her month in Chania, Gwen learned about Crete’s rich Jewish history and the importance of cultural preservation.

Thank you to all of those who work at Etz Hayyim including Anja Zückmantel, the Administrative Director of the synagogue, and historian Katerina Anagnostaki, as well as CYA faculty Daphne Lappa and Nadia Meliniotis, Executive Director of Student Affairs at CYA, for facilitating Gwen’s eye-opening experience.

“Being a full-year student at CYA, one of the things I had to think about before coming abroad was what I was going to do with my January term. By the time I got to Athens, I still didn’t have much of a plan. However, this changed during our September field trip to Crete: on the second-to-last day, we visited Etz Hayyim, a historical Romaniote synagogue in Chania with a very remarkable history.

Volunteering at Etz Hayyim, the Last Remaining Synagogue in Crete 865fe9c8dd5c5a27008238b0e94bcea6 greece travel crete greece

The Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

Etz Hayyim was located in the Jewish Quarter of Chania for centuries until its destruction by the Nazis and the slaughter of the Jewish community during World War II. Afterwards, it lay in ruins until the 1990s, when a scholar named Nikos Stavroulakis gathered funds to reconstruct it and revive the community. It now serves a religiously and culturally diverse community (​havurah ), and is very much reanimated. In the winter, there are around 15 people who regularly attend Shabbat, and not all of them are Jewish. Most of them are not Greek, either: some are American, some are Israeli, some are German, and the rabbi is French. Etz Hayyim welcomes them all. Overall, though our tour wasn’t very long, I was totally fascinated by the place, and instantly knew that I had to come back.

After the trip, with the help of Nadia Meliniotis and CYA, I got in touch with two historians doing research at Etz Hayyim and asked them if I could intern with them and help them out with their project (as a history major, I have some experience with archiving). They graciously said yes. Their project revolves around reconstructing the Jewish community of Chania that existed before the arrival of the Nazis, and they are currently creating a searchable online database with the name of every Jewish person in the town, making the crucial information accessible to the diaspora community and to scholars. They assigned me the task of transliterating all of the 1,200 Greek-Jewish names into the Latin alphabet for the database. It was really exciting to put my Modern Greek studies into practice! I also started sorting/archiving the personal collection of the aforementioned scholar Nikos Stavroulakis, which involved sorting an incredible amount of slide film. Essentially, I spent a lot of time either squinting at spreadsheets or squinting at 35mm slides. It was fantastic, and so valuable to me as a prospective historian. The many cats who live at the synagogue were the cherry on top. My only warning to prospective volunteers is that those with cat allergies might want to think twice!

Volunteering at Etz Hayyim, the Last Remaining Synagogue in Crete Archiving Stavroulakis Collection

Archiving Nikos Stavroulakis’ collection

I also have to add that living in Chania for a month was amazing. It’s very quiet in the winter, so wandering around town was always very peaceful. I spent one whole day just walking down the coast, exploring caves and little tide pools and finding snails. The food is also very good—I ate lots of Cretan sheep milk yogurt, ​koulouria (cookies)​, olive ​kritsinia​ (breadsticks), and drank lots of dictamos​ (Cretan tea). My favorite thing to do was to go to the harbor and just sit by the water.

Volunteering at Etz Hayyim, the Last Remaining Synagogue in Crete Chania Harbor

Chania harbor

Overall, I would highly encourage future CYA students with an interest in history or Jewish studies to consider volunteering with Etz Hayyim. There are always exciting projects going on at the synagogue, and the community is so warm and welcoming. It really is a very special place—friends of the synagogue would often drop by and drink coffee with us in the office, or bring in interesting materials for us to look over. The Friday Shabbat services were small, but moving and full of life. Even though I was only there for a month, I am very glad that I was able to contribute something to such a loving and vibrant community”

Guest post written by full year ’19-’20 student Gwen Ellis.

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