Athens currently has the largest Jewish population in Greece. Long ago, after the absorption by Byzantium of the Classical Greek Empire and the Roman Eastern Empire, Athens was not a favorable place for Jews to live because of its prolific pagan lifestyle. From the time the ancient synagogue of Agora was destroyed in the 5th century, until the 19th century, the Jewish community of Athens did not have a synagogue.
At the onset of WWII there were about 3,000 Jews living in the city, a number that would be supplemented by fleeing Jews from the north of Greece after the German takeover. Athens was in the Italian Zone of Occupation, a fact that gave the Jews of the city more time to prepare for their survival. Due to a strong resistance movement, the actions of the Greek Orthodox Church and the foresight of the Chief Rabbi of Athens most of the Jews hidden throughout the city were spared from the Holocaust. Currently, there are approximately 3,000 Jews living in Athens using two functioning synagogues, both on the same street facing each other, the present “Beth Shalom” synagogue and just across the Romaniote style “Ioanniotiki” synagogue.
The primary synagogue of Athens today is Beth Shalom (Hebrew for “House of Peace”), built in 1935 by the Sephardic community of Athens on the original site where Jewish refugees from Asia Minor held religious sermons – at 5 Melidoni St., Thission. However, the interior was not completed prior to WWII.
During WWII the Synagogue was not in use. Since the interior had not been completed prior to the war, it was initially finished in 1951 to be further fully renovated in 1975 (by the local architect Mr. Iosif Koen), and ever since Beth Shalom has been the main active synagogue.
The synagogue is a neo-classical structure of white Pentelic marble. It has an area of 400 sq. m. and a capacity of 550 persons. Inside, large modern stained glass windows adorn the wood paneled side-walls. The layout is not the usual for Greek synagogues as the tevah (bimah) and the echal (Aron) are joined together by a raised platform. As it is customary though in Greek synagogues, the women’s gallery (Ezrat Nashim) is upstairs, along the sides and back of the sanctuary.
Entering the synagogue we face a bronze-covered wall that is dedicated to the Athenian Jews victims of Shoah (worked by the artist Mr. Didonis). They were captured by the Nazis in this synagogue in March 1944, just before Pessah eve, as they gathered to buy Matza and wine for the festival. The engraved part stands for part of the Kotel (Solomon’s Temple western Wall) and on the other side, facing the interior, there is a Menorah.
Along both sides of the synagogue, at the rear section, we see names of sponsors and benefactors of the community. The outstanding stained glass work (worked by the artist Mrs. Lymberopoulou) depicts on the right side the Creation of the world (the earth and G-d’s light on it) and on the left side the Exodus from Egypt (G-d’s cloud of glory and alleys of freedom). Against a white wall at the front of the sanctuary, a large wall-covering bronze artwork with geometric symbols and Stars-of-David serves as a background for the intricately carved wood Aron Kodesh. Tablets with The Ten Commandments inscribed in Hebrew are carved into the top of the Aron Kodesh and a velvet Torah curtain with gold embroidery and tassels is drawn across it. Seven silver-colored incense burners (indicating the Menorah and nowadays using electric lamps) hang down in front of the Aron Kodesh. The tevah sits in front of the Aron Kodesh, draped with a velvet cover with gold embroidery. A low white wall runs across the front of the bimah. Wood pews fill the sanctuary.
SYNAGOGUE VISITING HOURS
1st November to 30th of March: Monday to Friday 8:30-13:00
1st of April to 30th of October from 8:30-14:00
Excluding Jewish and Greek holidays.
(Please make sure that you have with you your passport or identity card.)