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Rome honors its chief rabbi

ROME, Oct. 28 (JTA) — Rome’s chief rabbi, who is retiring after 50 years in the position, has received the city’s highest honor.

At an emotional ceremony last Friday at the city’s historic city hall, Elio Toaff was named an honorary citizen — the equivalent of receiving the keys to the city.

Attending the ceremony were Jewish community leaders, cultural figures and Holocaust survivors, as well as a broad spectrum of Italy’s political and cultural elite — including President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who hugged his old friend.

“The entire city of Rome embraces you, and with you it embraces the Jewish community and all those in the world who are unjustly persecuted and offended,” Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said.

He called Toaff “a man of faith who has always been distinguished not just for his dedication to tolerance, dialogue and discussion, but also by a tenacious commitment to defend democracy and freedom.”

Toaff, 86, shocked the Rome community with a surprise announcement at the city’s main synagogue earlier this month that he was stepping down because of his age.

A committee set up by the Rome community to choose a successor was expected to announce its decision within a month.

Italy’s 35,000 Jews do not have a national chief rabbi.

Rome, with 15,000 Jews, has the country’s largest Jewish community, and the Rome chief rabbi is the country’s leading Jewish religious figure.

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.

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