JEWS OF RHODES

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Jews were credited with assisting in the defense of Rhodes against the invading Ottoman Turks in 1480. At the start of the 1500’s, as a flood of Sephardi exiles from Spain and Sicily desperately sought refuge throughout the Mediterranean world, the Jews of Rhodes also struggled to survive. D’Aubusson, the Grand Master of Rhodes, ordered them to convert to Christianity. Some submitted to baptism, while others faced slavery, death, or were expelled to Nice, France. D’Aubusson’s death prevented the decree’s full enforcement, saving the community, but very few Jews remained.

In 1522, the Ottoman Turks vanquished the Knights of Saint John, heralding the start of four centuries of religious freedom for the Jews of Rhodes. The Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, sought to develop the island with the assistance of the Jews. That same year, about 40 Jewish families from Thessaloniki / Salonica arrived in Rhodes, and he granted them special privileges, including a 20-year tax exemption, free housing, and sulfur mining rights. During this same period, Jewish exiles from southern Italy turned east to the Ottoman Empire for refuge, and some likely joined Sephardic and Sicilian Jews in settling on Rhodes. The appearance of many Italian surnames among the Jews of Rhodes bears witness to this migration. Some historical books, by reputable people, note that about 50 families settled in Rhodes in 1522.

The Romaniote Jews (Jews of Greek origin who spoke Greek) had lived in Rhodes for centuries before the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the 16th century. The Romaniote Jews became a small minority and soon lost their identity.

References:

Abraham Galante, Histoire des Juifs de Rhodes, Chio, Cos, etc., Istanbul: Société anonyme de Papeterie et d´Imprimerie, 1935.

Rabbi Marc D. Angel, The Jews of Rhodes: The history of a Sephardic Community, Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc. and the Union of Sephardic Congregations, New York, 1980.

Esther Fintz Menascé, Gli Ebrei a Rodi, Milano, 1992.