The year was 167 BCE. The place, Judea. Under the leadership of King Antiochus, some forty thousand Syrian Greek soldiers were sharpening their spears and mounting their war elephants. The enemy? The Maccabees, a tiny army of poorly equipped Jewish warriors under the leadership of Mattisyahu. The objective was simple, to eradicate those archaic Jewish practices such as kosher observance and circumcision and replace them with Hellenism—the "enlightened" culture of the Greeks.

Antiochus had little doubt that by the end of the century, the observance of kashrus would have gone in the way of the dinosaurs. Had someone suggested that two millennia later Jews would not only be keeping kosher in Israel, but in Greece itself…. well, chances are that Antiochus would have enjoyed a good laugh at the ludicracy of the notion. And for the one that suggested the treacherous notion? That comment would have cost him his life, but he would have been right.

The Jewish community in Greece is among the oldest Jewish communities still in existence, dating back to the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in the fifteenth century, the small community grew further as many refugees made their way to Greece. Today the country hosts thousands of Jewish tourists each year as they come to enjoy the perfect blend of sandy beaches, mountain views and historical architecture.

Yet despite its rich heritage, there was little organized Judaism available for the small community. In 2001, Rabbi Mendel Hendel and his wife Nechama moved to Athens, Greece. The couple moved there as Chabad Shluchim with the aim of meeting the spiritual needs of the local Jews. One of the first hurdles they encountered was keeping kosher.

"Keeping kosher in Greece is often difficult," the Israeli rabbi admits. "It’s a lot less accessible than in cities with larger Jewish populations. We can’t get much more than fruit, vegetables and a few other basics at the local stores. We have most of our food delivered." At first that sounds like something I may be able to relate to. Rather than being honked at by angry New York drivers and then hunting for that rare parking spot that was neither by a fire hydrant nor a driveway, I, too, choose to order my groceries online and have them delivered. I quickly find out that our deliveries are not all that similar. For a start, while my groceries are from a mile or two away, the Hendels receive their deliveries from an entirely different country.

"We usually order our food from kosher supermarkets in France, Belgium or Italy. As they too are members of the European Union, transporting the food is often much faster since they don’t have to pass through customs." He explains. While the weeks leading up to Pesach are not the most relaxing for most families, the Hendels had an extra nerve-wracking couple of days when a shipment from Israel (not a member of the EU) containing matzah, wine and meat for the holiday was treated to an extended stay at Greek Customs. The release date was indefinite despite Passover’s date rapidly approaching. "Thank G-d, we received it just a few days before the holiday," he exhales at the memory.

In recent years the size of the deliveries increased dramatically. No longer were the groceries being ordered exclusively for the Hendel family and their many guests. Instead, Chabad of Athens opened a kosher mini market to make kosher food available to the wider community and many tourists. Rabbi Hendel explains what triggered the opening of the mini market.

"People were learning about kashrus in our Torah classes. They understood the beauty and significance of this core mitzvah and they wanted to put what they had learned into practice. But kosher food was not easily accessible, I can promise you that." Rabbi Hendel recalls. "We saw that we had to provide them with more than just the knowledge about kashrus. We had to make keeping kosher accessible for the Jews of Athens." Foregoing steak and cheese and subsiding on beans and rice was hardly an appealing prospect for those considering adopting the laws of kashrus, and so the mini market was opened.

For the Jewish residents and tourists of Athens, keeping kosher meant sacrificing the option of dining out. There were no kosher restaurants where one could enjoy gourmet cuisine in celebration of a birthday, anniversary, or just because. There was nowhere to order dinner from on the rare occasion that one was too tired to cook themselves. And for the many tourists, there was nowhere to enjoy a hot meal. But all that changed last year with the opening of Greece’s first and only kosher restaurant, an elegant Sephardic diner called Gostijo.

The Jewish community in Greece is among the oldest Jewish communities still in existence, dating back to the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash

"It was a highlight of our visit to Athens," Erica, a native New Yorker, enthused of her recent visit to Gostijo. "The chef produces such delightful food and the hosts are warm and welcoming, with such interesting backgrounds. Nechama speaks four languages, all with a native accent and idiomatically correct! The Hendels could not be more charming."

But Gostijo is more than just a place to sample exotic Mediterranean dishes such as Mujadera or Poyopatata. As well as catering all types of events, on Friday nights it hosts Shabbat dinners. Other times it hosts kosher cooking classes or musical evenings. "The restaurant is much more than a place to eat," agrees Rabbi Hendel. "It is a place where we celebrate our rich Jewish culture and heritage."

2000 years after Antiochus penalized the observance of kosher with death, Judaism is thriving in Greece. Unfortunately Greece itself is going through one of its roughest patches in history and its own rich heritage is being violated. Today Greece is synonymous with a failed economy as unemployment affects 25% of its citizens. Zalman, a young man who recently visited Athens, describes his impressions of the city. "It was not pretty. The city itself is beautiful with magnificent architecture and amazing history. But now there was graffiti everywhere, desecrating historical landmarks…. The people are going through a rough time. There were constant protests, police out in riot gear…It was a rather depressing scene."

As Greece struggles to overcome one of their darkest times, the light of Chanukah is even more poignant. In her blog "It’s all Greek to Me!" (, Nechama Hendel describes how their campaign to spread the light of Chanukah throughout Greece. Several years ago, Rabbi Mendel and Nechama set out on a mission: to equip as many Jews as possible with the tools to light the Chanukah menorah.

"We spent days and days in the car with maps and the GPS, which proved not to be always reliable." writes Nechama. "One time we were in Lykavettos, a very hilly area, and the authoritative voice of the GPS tells us: ‘Turn left"… onto some stairs! We continued and she urged us: ‘Turn left NOW!’ and after we passed it we heard the dreaded: ‘You are now off track!’.

Despite the difficulty involved, the effort was much appreciated by the grateful recipients. After finding a menorah and candles on his doorstep, one delighted gentleman called the Hendels the next day. "How did you know?" He asked in wonder. "Just yesterday morning my wife and I were discussing how we would love to light Chanukah candles, but we had no idea where to find them. And that same evening you bring them to our door!"

Now dozens of volunteers join the couple in spreading the light of Chanukah by delivering the kits.

The year is 2012. The place, Athens. As the city struggles through one of its darkest times in history, a small group of Jews gather in the city center. Their mission is simple, to share the light and joy of Chanukah with the hurting city. And so they sing and dance and enjoy kosher jelly doughnuts, and then the streets become a bit brighter as the flames of the menorah dance in Athens.