Cyprus revives centuries-old Jewish community

Predominantly Greek Orthodox Cypriots are witnessing a revival of the centuries-old Jewish presence on the island with the inauguration of the island’s first synagogue.

Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, inaugurated it Monday at a ceremony attended by Education and Culture Minister Pefkios Georgiades and the mayor of the host town of Larnaca.

The hundred or so guests, who included representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church and other faiths witnessed a religious ceremony not seen on the island for over 50 years.

The only other centres of worship during the past century have been makeshift temples within the farming communities dotted around the island.

The coastal town of Larnaca which accommodates the new Jewish Community Centre sheltered thousands of Jews on their way to establishing the State of Israel in the 1940s.

The sole remnant of Jewish settlements on Cyprus is a lonely cemetery near the village of Pyroi in the no-man’s-land along the ceasefire line between the Turks and the Greeks, where the agricultural settlement of Margo once flourished.

One of the most famous Jews buried in Pyroi was David Raziel, killed on a British mission in Iraq in 1941. His body was secretly removed in 1961 and reinterred in Israel with state honours.

Records suggest that the Turkish conquerors who took Cyprus from the Venetians in 1571 wanted to settle the land with “trustworthy people”, so they resettled Jews from the ancient holy city of Sefad, and from Greece.

The vibrant Jewish community of the past has left its mark in Cyprus, although the number of “native” Jews never exceeded more than a handful of families.

Chief among them is entrepreneur David Slonim who celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year. He established the Cyprus Palestine Plantation which he later sold to the Lanitis family that is the biggest fruit farmer and juice maker on the island today.

Another one of his companies, a construction and property developer which primarily employed Jewish engineers in its early years, was later renamed Cybarco, and is today also owned by Lanitis.

A Greek Cypriot businessman, Prodromos Papavassiliou, in a rare diplomatic act by Israel was recently named honorary consul for helping the 52,000 Jewish immigrants who were stranded on the island for 14 months in 1947 to 1948 as the British Mandate forces refused many ships permission to dock in then-Palestine.

Some 2,000 babies were born on the island at the time.

Nowadays, the modern community numbers some 1,500, mostly Israelis and Jews from South Africa and eastern Europe working in the bustling “offshore”, information technology (IT) and telecom sectors.

Political relations between Cyprus and Israel warmed over a decade ago when two successive presidents, George Vassiliou and veteran politicians Glafcos Clerides, turned away from Cyprus’ former anti- Israeli policy during the Nonaligned Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, that had close ties to the Arab world and the Palestinians.

“This (community centre) will enable us to share our rich cultural heritage with the wider community,” said Zeev Raskin, who was inducted as the first rabbi of the Jewish community of Cyprus.

He was sent as an emissary a few years ago to help stimulate a Jewish revival on the island that is popular to more than 60,000 Israelis each year who enjoy short-break holidays on a 20 minute flight from Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Raskin, his wife Shaindel, and their four children, are the only observant Jews in Cyprus.

But some 160 people regularly attend weekly services at the new Jewish centre, said community member Saadya Notik.

“People of all faiths and all backgrounds are welcome at the centre,” that employs a relaxed “come-as-you-are and as you wish” policy, added Notik.

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