SERRAI (Serres ), town in Macedonia, Greece, E.N.E. of *Salonika. There was a Jewish community in Serrai in Byzantine times. There are scant references to Jews in Serres in the 12th and 14th centuries. After the Ottoman conquest of *Istanbul in 1453, Jews were forcefully transferred to the capital in the framework of the sorgun, and there they formed Kahal Serron. Jews settled in Serres after the expulsions from Spain (1391), from Bavaria (1470) and from Spain (1492). Italian Jews were also found in Serrai in the 15th century. Expulsees from Spain and Portugal came to Serres in the 16th century. Also former Portuguese anusim (Marranos) who had previously settled in Salonika relocated to Serrai for its lucrative commercial opportunities. The Judeo-Greek speaking Romaniots ruled the community at the beginning of the 16th century, but by the end of the century their presence was no longer felt. In the 16th century both a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi synagogue were in existence. The Jews lived in a special quarter in the old city. The community was strengthened in the 16th century by the presence of Rabbi Joseph Taitazak, and afterward by the elder Rabbi Joseph Firman and his son, Rabbi Solomon ha-Serroni. When Firman left in the 1560s to serve in Salonika and elsewhere in the Greek Peninsula, Serrai deteriorated as a Torah center. In the 18th and 19th centuries, several noted rabbinical scholars lived in the town, among them: Ḥayyim Abraham Strumza, the author of Beit Avraham and Yerekh Avraham; Ḥayyim Abraham b. David, author of Tiferet Adam; Mordecai Aseo, author of Higgid Mordekhai; and Nissim Muṣeiri, author of Be'er Mayim Ḥayyim. During the time of Rabbi Strumza (late 18th–early 19th century), the old synagogue was destroyed and replaced by a newly built synagogue called Kahal Gadol, with rooms for a yeshiva, library, and guests. The ground floor contained a small Talmud Torah, and the sanctuary had 2,000 seats for those that came to pray, including an Ezrat Nashim, a woman's section. On Yom Kippur during the Kol Nidre evening service, there was a tradition of an azkara, a memorial service, for all the communal leaders and rabbis since the 16th century. This tradition continued until the Bulgarians set the city ablaze in 1912.
Ereẓ Israel emissaries, like Rabbi Moshe Halevi (Harma"l) Nazir and Yosef Cohen, visited the Serrai Jewish community from 1668 to 1684. Local Jews from Serrai also went to Ereẓ Israel on pilgrimages. The messianic activities of David *Reuveni and Solomon *Molcho aroused much fervor in Serres. The members of the rabbinic Taitazak family supported the messianic movement and the study and dissemination of Kabbalah. Until the last third of the 19th century, the Hamon, Ovadia, and other families continued local traditions of forming special societies for encouraging the study of Kabbalah.
The Jews of Serrai dealt mostly in wholesale and retail trade: in tobacco, cotton, opium, wheat, barley, and manufactured goods. There were also artisans among them, such as blacksmiths and cobblers. In the 19th century, the Jews dealt mostly in banking and commerce.
The Jews who had moved to the suburbs of the city founded their own synagogue, called Midrash. This caused communal dissension, and Rabbi Raphael Asher Kovo of Salonika in 1873 decided that on the Sabbath and holidays the Jews could only pray at the old synagogue. Violence eventually erupted, and Joseph Salmona was murdered. Echoes of communal division remained for many years.
Until the mid-19th century, the youth of the community learned in a primitive traditional meldar (ḥeder). In 1866 a modern Talmud Torah was formed and French was taught. In 1873 a new school was established where Hebrew, Turkish, and French were taught, and Yaakov Azaria of Salonika came from Salonika to be principal. In the early 1880s the school had to close due to financial constraints. In 1895, with help from the Alliance Israélite Universelle and Baron Hirsch, a school was established. Mercado Kovo was the principal from 1895–1901. In 1901 a mixed (coed) Alliance Israélite Universelle school was established with 150 students (103 boys and 47 girls). In 1909–1910 a new modern school that cost 40,000 Francs was built, but it burned down in 1913.
At the end of the 19th century, with the advent of modern education, several educated Jewish personalities emerged in Serrai. The last chief rabbi of Serrai was Samuel Raphael ben Haviv (1813–1887), author of Amar Shmuel. He was an important posek (halakhic decisor), orator, and poet. Another rabbi, Avraham Strumza, died in 1889. After his death, the community deteriorated spiritually.
At the end of the 19th century, the economic situation took a turn for the worse. The Salonikan-Istanbul railroad did not stop at Serrai, and the city was not on the principal trade routes as it once had been. Jews began migrating to Salonika, Kavalla, Zanthi, and Drama, and the community became poor. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish community consisted of 30–40 affluent families of bankers, merchants, moneylenders, and insurance agents; 100 middle-class families which engaged primarily in petty trade; and 50 poor families which were dependent on financial assistance from the affluent.
During the Balkan Wars (1912–13), the Jewish population numbered approximately 1,300; when the Bulgarian army invaded the town, it burned down the main synagogue, the Jewish school, and 115 of 140 houses. The Jews themselves were saved only upon the intervention of Jews serving with the Bulgarian forces. Some of the Jews took refuge in Bulgaria, while others moved to *Drama and *Kavalla. When the Greeks reoccupied the town after the summer of 1913, the Jewish community was reorganized. The Greeks ruled until early 1916, and were replaced by the Bulgarians for two years.
The Balkan Wars and World War i led to the deterioration of the Jewish community of Serrai, and many of the Jews migrated to other parts of Greece, like Salonika, Drama, and Cavalla, and to Bulgaria. Most of the Jews who left Serrai did not return to the city, but Jewish refugees migrated there from elsewhere. The Jewish community slowly recovered and rebuilt itself. Some of the Jewish houses destroyed by the Bulgarians were rebuilt with the financial assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Most of the local Jews found employment in the workshops of the Austro-Greek Tobacco Company, whose vice president was a local Jew, Joseph Faraggi.
In 1929 there were 90 Jewish families in the city. In 1932 the community numbered 800, with half coming from Salonika, Drama, and Xanthi to work in the tobacco industry. The Jews suffered greatly from the economic depression in the early 1930s. A new Jewish school was built, and by 1932 it had 200 students, 40 of whom were not Jewish, but Greek-Orthodox. With the arrival from Asia Minor of Greek-Orthodox refugees from 1922 onward, relations between the Jews and the Greek-Orthodox deteriorated.
In 1940, the community had a membership of 600. The Bulgarians pressured the Jewish community to collaborate with them against the Greeks, and wanted the Jews to sign statements attesting to the advantages of Bulgarian rule and its preference over Greek rule, but the Jews refused. In February 1942, the Bulgarians issued anti-Jewish regulations forbidding Jews to work in commerce, and compelling Jews to designate their homes and businesses as Jewish-owned. In 1942, Jews began fleeing the city. In March 1943, around 475 Jews were deported by the Bulgarians for the Nazis to Treblinka via the Gorn Djumaya internment camp in Bulgaria. Bulgarians and Greek-Orthodox collaborators occupied the Jewish homes, stores, and workshops. Valuables were sent away on trains, and the rest of the personal property of the Jews was sold in a public auction. All those deported were gassed in Treblinka. Only three Jews were left in 1948. There were no Jews in Serrai in the 1960s. The Jewish school was used as a Greek school, and Jewish tombs can be found in the old Jewish cemetery or in the municipal museum.
M. Covo, Aperçu historique sur la communauté israélite de Serrès (1962). add. bibliography: B. Rivlin, "Serres," in Pinkas Ha-Kehillot Yavan (1999), 300–10.
[Simon Marcus /
Yitzchak Kerem (2nd ed.)]