The Romaniotes are a unique community of Jews whose slave ship was heading to ancient Rome (thus the name) over 2300 years ago. A storm forced the boat to land in Greece instead. The immigrants stayed and developed a distinct culture with its own Greek-Jewish dialect, its own prayer books, even its own food.
Today, at 280 Broome Street in New York City, there is a synagogue, Kehila Kedosha Janina, with a Romaniote congregation. It is the only synagogue of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Museum Director Marcia Ikonomopolous talked about how revered the synagogue is. It is a New York City Landmark Building, and it is in the National and State Register of Historic Places.
The Director also shared Romaniote history in New York City. In the early 20th century, there were hundreds of synagogues on the Lower East Side serving Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews or Sephardic Spanish-speaking Jews.
Because they wanted to preserve their own traditions, customs and language, the Romaniote Jews bought a building at 280 Broome Street in 1927. For the past 90 years, the synagogue has served the Romaniote community, keeping its Greek-Jewish language alive.
In 1997, a museum about Greek Jewry was created in the building to tell the Romaniote story. We saw costumes from Janina, the Romaniote capital of Greece; the world’s largest collection of Alephs, the Romaniotes’ distinctive hand-painted birth certificates; a library, an art gallery, and the first Holocaust Memorial to Greek Jews in America. 87% of Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Kehila Kedosha Janina continues to thrive, offering weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, lectures, exhibits, book signings, movie screenings and concerts. Today there are about 1000 Greek Jews in the United States, 3000 in Israel and very few in Greece.
The synagogue is a living tribute to the perseverance of the Romaniote community. With its original wooden floors from 1927, a tin ceiling replica of the original tin ceiling, and the museum’s ancient artifacts, Kehila Kedosha Janina also brings Romaniote history to vibrant, beautiful life.
To learn more, go to www.kkjsm.org or call (212) 431-1619