Two of the most influential proponents of Greek education in the United States, Drake G. Behrakis and Maria Exarhopoulos Behrakis, spoke about the future of Hellenism at the National Hellenic Society’s (NHS) Heritage Weekend which took place in Las Vegas in October.
In an interview with Greek Reporter, the Chairman of the National Hellenic Society said that the Greek-American community faces new challenges as American society becomes increasingly intercultural and interfaith.
“Maintaining Greek identity is a challenge. We need to make sure that the programs we have, the events we do are all-inclusive,” said Drake. “They should not just be geared towards the population that was here 30, 40, 50 years ago. We need to focus to the mainstream if we want to remain relevant.”
The second-generation Greek man, born in Massachusetts, notes that Greek-American organizations such as the National Hellenic Society “need to reconnect with those Greek-Americans that drifted away, and connect with those that never really had a connection.”
“Our organization is not just based on celebrating our rich Greek culture but also to preserve, protect and perpetuate it for future generations. But we need to be realistic in what we can achieve,” he added.
Maria Behrakis, a first-generation Greek and a trustee of the American College of Thessaloniki, explains that education helps to maintain Hellenism in the United States, something of paramount importance for the earliest Greek- Americans.
“Education was the basis of everything, always at the core of the value system of Greek families and the Greek community, she said. “There was a widespread feeling that our parents sacrificed everything to come to America and therefore we would do our part and educate ourselves.”
“To be able to say that I educated myself it was a matter of pride not just for our parents but also for our relatives back in Greece,” she added.
Drake adds that there is another factor that makes Greek-Americans eager to study the Greek language. “In all subjects, there is strong connection with Greece. We take pride of the connection to ancient Greece,” he said. “Whether it is classics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, a student touches upon some aspect of ancient Greece and the culture and the values and beliefs that have developed from that time.”
The couple taught their three children Greek from an early age and then sent them to Greek schools.
“From the moment they were born we spoke to them in Greek. They have a strong foundation in Greek. We do travel to Greece almost every year and this hopefully helps,” says Drake.
The National Hellenic Society’s programs provide young people with the opportunity to travel to Greece and spend time with the Greek counterparts.
“They are instantly connected. They learn about each other. Those connections stay forever now. These people will become future leaders in our organizations and in our society,” says Drake, who is a member of the board of the American College of Greece in Athens.
Maria adds that even if these students never take another trip to Greece, “they come back with a solid understanding of what is like to be a modern Greek citizen, instead of just reading about Socrates and Aristotle.”
“It’s about living the Greek life in a major city in Greece,” she added.
Maria says she is optimistic about the future. “Hellenism has been around for thousands of years…As an optimist, as a Greek American, I think we can do it.”
For Drake, the economic crisis in Greece “was a wakeup call for the diaspora.”
“For many it was not just a question of looking at ways to help their homeland but also how we can bring our homeland back into our country to help us perpetuate our heritage,” he said. “The challenge is how to perpetuate our heritage, not just to preserve it. I think we are in a much better spot than my father’s generation.”
Watch the full interview: