A mechanical engineer with a PhD in quality management, Fofi Mimi-Saltiel was a successful consultant based in Thessaloniki, Greece for over 10 years. Then, the financial crisis hit Greece and Fofi found herself with very few projects and a lot of time on her hands. With a family to support and a passion for entrepreneurship, she sprung into action, turning a long-time dream into a reality. She launched the Coworking Home (Coho), a bright and airy co-working space in the heart of Thessaloniki for startups and freelancers.
Through Coho, Fofi is also focused on making a difference for the local Jewish community. In addition to creating a project that connects Jewish professionals with Israeli companies that can employ them remotely, Fofi is also hoping to run a six-month accelerator for startups founded by Jewish young adults in Greece and throughout the Balkans.
“The biggest threat to our community today is the financial crisis,” said Fofi. “Young Jews are leaving Greece to find jobs elsewhere, and without jobs, Jews from other countries aren’t coming to live here either.”
Thessaloniki’s Jewish community of approximately 1,000 individuals is just a fraction of what it once was. During the Holocaust, about 95% of the community was tragically decimated when Germany occupied Greece. Most Thessaloniki Jews were forcibly sent to concentration camps in Poland. A small number of Jews hid in the Greek mountains and returned to Thessaloniki after the war ended.
“Thessaloniki used to be known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans,’ and now we’re in danger of vanishing,” said Fofi.
Before the Holocaust, Thessaloniki was home to 42 synagogues, all but one of which the Nazis destroyed. The Monistir Synagogue was salvaged because it was converted into a warehouse for the Red Cross. Earlier this decade, the synagogue underwent major renovations. It reopened in 2016 on Israel’s Independence Day with a ceremony that brought the community together to sing Sephardic songs and the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Later this year, the Holocaust Museum of Greece is set to open in Thessaloniki. The Jewish Archives in Thessaloniki, created by Momentum sister Aliki Arouch in 2009, are the only European archives that work with individuals to build their family trees.
Though small, the local Jewish community is active and committed to maintaining their traditions. On the first night of Passover, the community hosts a large seder in a hotel that brings together about 80 Jewish locals and tourists. For the second seder, a more intimate group of community members celebrates together in the Jewish community center. While Thessaloniki has no kosher restaurants, kosher for Passover food is imported from Israel and then sold in the Jewish community center.
Fofi’s children attend the city’s only Jewish primary school, which has about 45 students. Because there aren’t enough Jewish children to fill each grade, the school accepts non-Jewish children, too. Fofi’s children are also active in the local Jewish youth group.
“Our children still have trouble dealing with the loss of so many family members and community members during the Holocaust,” said Fofi. “But they don’t need to hide that they’re Jewish in Thessaloniki today. We’re raising them to be proud of their Jewish identity and to embrace people’s differences.”