Last Wednesday marked the first time in three decades that residents of Cyprus were allowed to cross from one side to the other of their divided island. In a gesture of peace between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots—the Republic of Cyprus is on its way to becoming a united country.
Coinciding with Passover, this move towards liberation followed on the heels of another significant first for the Mediterranean Island. Exactly a week beforehand, 150 Jews had gathered for Cyprus’s first-ever communal Passover Seder, hosted by Chabad’s Rabbi Zev Raskin of Israel, at the Forest Park Hotel.
Jewish residents of Cyprus—some of whom have arrived here as Holocaust survivors—as well as tourists to the Island, joined Chabad’s elaborate Seder where thought provoking discussions and traditional Passover melodies made for a lively, meaningful evening. A first for Cyprus and for many of the guests, the Seder kept participants around the table through midnight, setting a remarkable precedent on an island many see as an escape from anything Jewish.
Between 1946 and the founding of Israel, in 1948, more than 50,000 European Jewish refugees were incarcerated on the Island. Turned away from the shores of the Holy Land after escaping Europe, they were deported to this English colony and detained until ’48.
But today’s Jewish community in Cyprus consists of an altogether different sort of escapees. “Jews often move to Cyprus to distance themselves from Judaism and from their Jewish identities,” says Raskin, who commuted from his home in Israel to conduct the Seder. And while many Israelis are drawn to this Eden-like oasis for business or for a much-needed reprieve from the tensions at home, an equally large contingent comes to marry out. In fact, 2,300 couples make the 45-minute plane trip here annually, to obtain marriage licenses without conforming to Israeli law.
On an island where intermarriage is the norm, most local Jews (there are some 600 families in total) quickly lose any connection to Judaism. Without even a single synagogue, living Jewish in Cyprus hardly seems feasible.
When an elderly Jewish woman was buried in the local Catholic cemetery, Israeli ambassador Amnon Yisrael felt things had come to a head, but without any support, he had nowhere to begin. Then word of plans for the Seder reached him, and an overjoyed Yisrael offered his services wherever he could be of help. Until now, he said, “there has been nothing in the way of a Jewish infrastructure here. When Jewish tourists and residents turn to us, as they repeatedly have, for kosher food, or a synagogue we have nothing to give them.”
People who were initially apprehensive about joining Chabad for the Seder came away with a fresh outlook on Judaism, and an eagerness and willingness to reexamine their heritage. The Seder’s fantastic success, says Raskin, will doubtless lead to significant changes in the face of Jewish life on the Island.
For 84-year-old Lilly Bardeshivsky, a native of Cyprus, things are already beginning to change. A young woman during the Second World War, when Cyprus expelled its Jewish residents for fear of attracting the Nazis, Lilly had spent the war years with her family and the Island’s Jewish community in a North African city, returning to Cyprus at the war’s end.
“I’ve never heard anything about Judaism until today,” she said, tearfully, to the two Rabbinical students who were part of the Seder’s coordinating team.
Deeply impressed by her meeting with the Chabad rabbinical students, Lilly has had a mezuzah affixed to her doorpost and has committed to lighting Shabbat candles, after a lifetime without any Jewish affiliation.
While Cyprus moves closer to resolving longstanding hostilties between its various factions, its Jewish residents may be moving closer to a spiritual awakening that is long overdue.