Etz Hayyim, situated in the small town of Chania on the northwestern coast of Crete, Greece, is a synagogue with a distinguished and tragic past, and persists as a space and a symbol of for interreligious understanding, fellowship, inclusivity, and a better future.
Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, had multiple thriving Jewish communities as far back as the 1st century BCE. Still, Etz Hayyim wasn't born until the Ottoman period (1696-1896) when the boundaries of the Jewish Quarter were enlarged, and one Jewish community was able to purchase St. Katharine Church and transform it into their sacred space.
Tragic events moving into the 20th century and the time of WW II, however, have become inscribed in the walls of this synagogue to remember the heroes who fell due to intolerance. The Tanais Memorial, for example, stands in one corner of the synagogue and commemorates the victims of the SS Tanais, which sank while carrying 263 Jews from the Chania community as well as 48 Christian resistance fighters and 112 Italian prisoners to concentration camps.
After the second WW, the Jewish Quarter of Chania was looted and the synagogue abandoned.
Fast forward to 1995, a strong earthquake nearly brought the still standing though abandoned synagogue to the ground, which won the attention of museum curator, scholar, professor, mystic, and "interreligious entrepreneur" Nicholas Stavroulakis.
Stavroulakis brought attention to the synagogue and its history leading to the synagogue's inscription to the UNESCO World Monuments list. He also led a complete restoration and redesign according to Stavroulakis' "own interreligious inclusivity" and his desire to create the space as a place for "recollection, reconciliation, and prayer."
In 1999, Stavroulakis rededicated the reconstructed synagogue to people of all religions, including non-believers. Stavroulakis called the new multifaith community "Havurah", a Hebrew term with roots and a history spanning ancient and modern Judaism referring to a movement devoted to fellowship, peace, community, and a new kind of scholarly pursuit.
Again, tragically, in 2010, the synagogue underwent two sequential antisemitic arson attacks within 10 days of each other. But the synagogue survives - now with security in place -as a beacon standing for fellowship and peace, also offering an exhibition gallery and bookstore.
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Gratitude to "storymaps" for the information provided above and the beautiful photos. Visit storymaps here for a full history and exposition about Etz Hayyim.