In a Jewish landscape as new and untouched as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, practically every day marks another historic milestone for the Jewish community. Since their arrival in 2003. Rabbi Arye Ze’ev and Shaindel Raskin, directors of Chabad on the island, can point to hundreds of them: the first kitchen koshering; the first organized community Shabbat – the list is virtually endless. But this Monday, an event widely covered by world media and attended by a lineup of local and international personalities, marked a celebration of firsts remarkable even by the Raskins’ standards.
It’s been about 500 years, by most estimates, since Cyprus has had a Rabbi. Aside for a failed attempt by the Ottoman Empire to settle the island in the 16th century, and a brief sojourn by 52,000 Jewish refugees turned back by the British blockade before the founding of the Jewish state, there has been no strong Jewish community here at all. But in recent years, with Jewish ex-pats from Israel, Russia, Europe and even South Africa joining the few families on the island, the permanent Jewish residents of Cyprus now number close to 2000. That, in addition to 60,000 Jewish tourists yearly, and a large number of Israeli businessmen who travel back and forth, makes for a Jewish community that is here to stay.
So this Monday, when Rabbi Raskin was appointed official Rabbi of Cyprus, a British commonwealth, by the office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, it was a long-awaited day for the island. It was also a convergence of historic firsts for the Jewish community. In addition to Raskin’s appointment as Rabbi, the day marked the inauguration of Cyprus’ first synagogue, the Rohr Family Community Synagogue; the completion and dedication of the community’s first Torah, and the groundbreaking for what is possibly the first mikvah ever to be built on the island.
Over 300 community members, foreign ambassadors, local diplomats and Rabbis from around the world were in attendance Monday, in addition to security detail and members of the press. A joyous procession accompanied the community’s new Torah to its home at the Rohr Family Community Synagogue, where a ribbon cutting ceremony marked the synagogue’s official inauguration. Funded mostly by the generous support of the Rohr family, the building is already being used for a wide range of purposes, including Shabbat and holiday celebrations, a newly opened kindergarten, and Jewish classes.
The official “crowning” of Rabbi Arye Ze’ev Raskin was performed by Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger and a representative of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the UK, Reverend Weissman. In a moving, traditional ceremony inside the synagogue, Raskin was draped with a tallit and officially took on the leadership of the Cyprus Jewish community. Afterward, the crowd moved outside where supporters laid the foundation stone for the new mikvah, a welcome development for the local families who currently make use of the Mediterranean Sea.
“Today is a truly historic day for Cyprus,” Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger told the assembled at an elaborate dinner following the ceremony. His sentiments were echoed by various speakers, including the representative of the archbishop of Cyprus, the Israeli ambassador Tzvi Cohen, Raskin, and others.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of the Lubavitch educational division at Lubavitch World Headquarters traveled from New York to participate in the event. “The warmth and dynamic energy of Rabbi and Mrs. Raskin have touched thousands of people since their arrival,” he told the crowd. “The continuity of the Jewish community of Cyprus now depends on each and every member of the community.”
Representing the Rohr family, whose generous support has established Chabad’s presence on the island, Kotlarsky then presented Chabad of Cyprus with an unexpected gift. After a late night arrival in Cyprus, he related, he had gone to visit the Chabad House of Aiya Napa. Aiya Napa, a summer resort near Larnaca, where Chabad activities are centered, attracts tens of thousands of Israeli teens who come for the beaches, clubs and legendary non-stop partying. In the midst of all this, Kotlarsky explained, is the newly established Chabad of Aiya Napa, a center where, at 2 a.m., one can find dozens of young Israelis earnestly discussing Judaism with the Chabad Rabbis who run it. The contrast to the scene outside, he said, was so uplifting he put in a call to the Rohr family to share it with them. Moved in turn, the Rohr family pledged their support for another three years of Jewish education in Cyprus. Beaming, Raskin accepted the gift on behalf of the Jewish community.
According to Saadya Notik, one of the Chabad rabbis who spent the summer manning the center at Aiya Napa, historic ceremonies like Monday’s event happen only rarely. But in the lives of countless people touched by Chabad’s activities in Aiya Napa, Larnaca and across the island, revolutions happen every single day. “As Chabad here continues to thrive, the entire Jewish landscape has been changed forever,” he said.