Greece’s chief rabbi in waiting, Gabriel Negrin, said the Internet and books he ordered online were major contributors to his adolescent Jewish education.
“Thank God, I met Rabbi Google,” the 25-year-old joked in a recent interview with Tablet Magazine.
Negrin will officially take over as the top rabbi in Athens this month and begin officiating at Beth Shalom, the largest functioning synagogue in the country’s capital, home to its largest Jewish community. After a five-month transition period, Greece’s current Chief Rabbi Isaac Mizan will retire and Negrin will officially be named the country’s chief rabbi.
As a child growing up in Athens, Negrin says he revered the elders in the Greek capital’s Jewish community.
“Some little boys looked up to Superman or Batman. For me, it’s always been old Jewish men,” he told Tablet. “They were my heroes.”
His passion for Jewish customs as a young boy and tendency to mimic the older pious men earned him the nickname Ravinakos, Greek for “little rabbi.”
Negrin’s was motivated to study more about his Judaism, building on the basics he learned at home and school. To quench his thirst for deeper knowledge, he sought out elderly Jewish scholars who remained in the once-active Jewish communities of Thessaloniki, Chalkida, and Athens. Former Chief Rabbi Yaakov Arar, now retired and living in Israel, became a close mentor of his.
As a musician since an early age, Negrin was also especially interested in studying and preserving Greek cantorial music. He began recording community elders chanting so that one day he could pass on the musical tradition.
For the last few years, Negrin studied for ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Jerusalem but traveled back and forth between Israel and Athens to maintain his role as a Jewish educator in his community. The liberal Orthodox rabbi used Skype to help prepare young congregants for their bar mitzvahs and assigned the films Fiddler on the Roof and The Believer as required viewing for his students.
Greece’s Jewish community numbers just over 5,000 -with 3,000 in Athens, 2,000 in Larissa, 700 in Thessaloniki and several smaller communities in islands such as Rhodes and Crete.
Negrin told Tablet he wants to revamp Jewish education in his country. He hopes young people not only become knowledgeable about their heritage and local customs, but are “freaking proud” to be Jewish.
“I’m very excited to revive the Greek Jewish tradition, and also to renew it,” he said, “to make it work for people today, who are living a modern life. I want to show them that music, food, singing, dancing, how you talk and act are all parts of being Jewish. It is so much more than a set of laws; it is a way of life.”
“Today, when I tell people I am a Jew from Greece, they look at me as exotic and that’s so wrong because Greece was such an important Jewish center,” he explained. “I want to continue that great line of Greek-Jewish tradition and modernize it.”