ROME, Oct. 11 (JTA) — Elio Toaff’s surprise announcement to step down as chief rabbi of Rome after half a century as spiritual leader of the oldest Jewish community in Europe has shocked many local residents.
The 86-year-old rabbi made the announcement Monday during Hoshanah Rabbah services at Rome’s Great Synagogue.
“It is time to take my leave of you. I am doing so by my own free choice, and with great emotion. I hope that a young man will take up the reins of this ancient community,” Toaff said.
Toaff’s announcement stunned the congregation, particularly at a time of world crisis.
Many broke into tears. Others shouted “Don’t leave us!” Congregants then gave Toaff a 10-minute ovation.
“It seems impossible to everyone that in such a difficult moment, after the attacks on the U.S. and with the war in Afghanistan and the threats of Osama bin Laden, the community can go forward without its chief rabbi,” wrote Claudia Terracina, a Rome journalist who is a member of the local community.
Italy has no national chief rabbi, and the Rome post is the country’s most visible Jewish religious position.
A short, spry man with a distinctive goatee, Toaff — who fought the Nazis as a partisan during World War II — has become a national figure since he took up the Rome post in 1951.
In 1986, he welcomed Pope John Paul II for the first-ever visit by a pope to a synagogue.
Affectionately known as “the professor,” he is regularly quoted in the media. A recent biography of the rabbi was a best seller.
Jews have lived in Rome for more than 2,000 years. With 15,000 of the country’s 35,000 Jews, the city has Italy’s largest Jewish community.