For Jewish travelers and academics exploring Salonica, Greece’s second-largest city and a fabled crossroads between Europe and the East, a new center endorsed by the local community is providing a menu of religious services previously offered on a spotty basis.

According to residents, the new Chabad-Lubavitch center directed by Rabbi Yoel and Ruth Kaplan has made a sea change in how foreign students – drawn to the region’s rich Jewish and non-Jewish history – perceive the ancient community.

“People are very happy that they are here,” stated Rabbi Eliyahu Sheetrit, the community’s rabbi. “What the Kaplans are doing for students and travelers is very important work. We support them 100 percent.”

Together with their five children, the Kaplans arrived in Salonica, once home to one of the world’s largest and most-vibrant Jewish communities, just before Passover. Appointed by Rabbi Mendel and Nechama Hendel, the Athens-based directors of Chabad of Greece, they hosted Seders for visiting travelers. After the holiday, they canvassed local families to help plan their programs.

“Salonica is a very old community,” said Mendel Hendel, who prior to the opening of the Chabad House, visited the port city several times a year. “Before World War II, it was a flourishing community, so there are always Jews coming to the city to study and visit. The tourists and students needed a place where they could feel at home, and the local community wanted more educational programs.”

On the eve of World War II, the local Jewish community included more than 30 synagogues, and was served by newspapers in Ladino, French and Greek. It numbered approximately 75,000 people, but when Axis powers defeated Greece in 1941, the country’s Jews suddenly found themselves targets of the Nazi regime in Germany. Nearly 12,000 from Salonica managed to escape to Israel, but more than 48,000 were murdered in the Holocaust. At the end of the war, the community consisted of just 2,000 people.

Yoel Kaplan said that number has remained fairly consistent over the years as families have come and gone. Though the community is small, it remains close knit.

“We’re still very much one community,” said Sheetrit, the chief rabbi. “Rabbi Kaplan attends services at our shul.”

Together, the Kaplans, Sheetrit and community president David Shaltiel are developing adult-education programs, and expanded services for local children. Chief on the Kaplans’ minds, though, are the approaching High Holiday season and the dawn of the new academic year.

“The main interest right now is in study,” said Kaplan, who is also reaching out to students at the International University of Macedonia. “The people here very much want to learn more about Jewish tradition.

“Tourists and students also need places to eat,” he added. “You cannot find kosher food in Salonica, unless you are invited to someone’s home. For now, the students come to us, but they need to also have a café or something similar. We hope to open one in the near future.”