Site: Kehila Kedosha Janina
Hymen Genee, 81, president of Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue
Kehila Kedosha Janina (http://www.kkjsm.org) is the only Romaniote synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Located in a narrow brick building squeezed between two Chinese glaziers at 280 Broome St., this synagogue is open only on the Sabbath and for the Jewish holidays. The museum is open on Sundays and by appointment.
Its name in Hebrew characters, Kehila Kedosha Janina, is engraved in stone above the entrance. The red front door opens to a small sanctuary, with too many chairs for the few regular worshippers. Every time the door bangs, the women sitting on the balcony lean forward anxiously, for each Saturday morning service comes the fear of not having the ten men required to read the Torah.
“Eight!” they shout in chorus, with a mix of triumph and sadness. They sometimes wait an hour before they reach the quorum. If they cannot, they skip the Torah reading altogether.
The congregation was founded on the Lower East Side by Greek Jewish immigrants in 1906, and named after the city of Ionnanina, from whence they came. Romaniote Jews, according to legend, first settled in Greece around 70 C.E. after escaping a Roman slave ship. Romaniote Jewry is unique from that of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic in its customs and liturgy.
After founding a congregation, a burial society and a brotherhood, the group raised money to build a synagogue, which was erected in 1927. Designed by architect Sydney Daub, is a two-story, brick faced structure embellished with symbolic ornament, such as the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments, Stars of David, and a cusped arch, suggestive of the Mediterranean origin of the congregation. Romaniote synagogues are usually laid out east to west, with the echal (ark) on the east wall and the bimah on the west wall. Seating, typically, runs from west to east with men congregates facing each other. The women’s section usually is contained above in a balcony above the men’s section with seating on the north, south and west sides. The women typically had their own outside entrance. The Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue is unusual in that it runs north south with the ehal on the north side. Additionally unusual for Romaniote synagogues is the placement of the bimah at Kehila Kedosha in the center of the sanctuary and the interior stair for the women’s balcony. The north/south configuration of the lot and its small size most probably led to the synagogue’s unprecedented lay out. The Torah scrolls are encased in ornate olive wood or round metal cases (one is a gift from the city of Ioannina).
The years 1927 to the beginning of World War II were the most prosperous for the community: three rabbis were conducting services and the crowd was so big on High Holidays that it was standing room only. After the war, there was an exodus to the other boroughs and Long Island; some Romaniote Jews started a minyan in Harlem, in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, of which nothing remains today. Membership dwindled, in spite of an influx of immigrants and Holocaust survivors.
Kehila Kedosha Janina is the only remaining Romaniote Synagogue in the western hemisphere, and one of the few remnants of a dying culture that flourished for twenty centuries in Greece. Its facade, combining elements of Classical and Moorish architecture, has been recently restored, and the interior is freshly painted, but the future of its religious activity does not look bright.
“We are on our last legs,” admits Hyman Genee, President of Kehila Kedosha Janina and leader of the service. “We have created a museum now for when our last members will be gone.”
The small museum displays religious and cultural artifacts of the distinctive cultural heritage of the congregants whose ancestors journeyed from Ioannina in northern Greece to Broome Street in New York City. Modest exhibits have been added to the walls of the women’s balcony showing costumes, house ware, photographs, artworks and ritual objects.
In May 2004, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue was awarded the prestigious Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, bestowed by the NYC Landmarks Conservancy. It is the highest honor for excellence in historic preservation.
The synagogue is open for Saturday services at 9 am and on all holidays, the museum operates from 11-4 on Sundays and by appointment. Both are at 280 Broome Street (at Allen Street) in Manhattan.
Statement of the Historic Districts Council Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding the Designation of the Kehila Kadosha Jannina Synagogue, 288 Broome Street, Manhattan, April 20, 2004.
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