Places that Matter

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue

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Exterior (after the restoration), Vincent Giordano
Exterior (after the restoration), Vincent Giordano
Interior, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue
Torah scrolls, City Lore
Greek Jewish synagogue on the National Register of Historic Places
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Kehila Kedosha Janina, a New York City landmark, is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere that practices Romanionte Judaism, a rare branch of Judaism that originated centuries ago in Greece.


Two-stories high, faced with light-colored brick, newly cleaned and shining, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue stands apart from its commercially-focused neighbors, mostly food-related enterprises serving the far-flung businesses of Chinatown. It's easy to spot the symbols of Judaica adorning the synagogue's façade. More elusive are the architectural references to far-off lands -- to a part of the map we once called the Near East.

Inside, the entrance vestibule is tiny, crowded with stairs that lead up to the women's balcony and down to the kitchen and activity room. (Like other orthodox forms of Judaism, women and men sit separately for services.) Directly ahead are dark wooden benches that face the raised bema, the platform from which services are conducted. Behind the bema along the back wall stands the ark -- the ehal -- covered with an embroidered velvet cloth. This is where the Torah scrolls -- containing the written form of Jewish Law -- are stored. The whole room is long, narrow, and rather dark; its furnishings far from fancy.

The second floor, traditionally the area where women look down at the bema and witness the services, serves as the synagogue's museum. Arrayed along the walls are exhibit panels bearing maps, photographs, and text. "Learn about a people you never knew existed," reads the brochure text. "Discover a lost tribe just around the corner." Nearby are free-standing cases showing traditional clothing, religious objects, and the stuff of Greek Jewish life in New York and the northwestern city of Janina -- or Ioannina -- capital of the Epirus region of Greece and hometown to the synagogue's original congregation. The exhibits are simple but professionally done, conveying information about the synagogue, and about Romaniote Judaism and the experience of Greek Jews.