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Around the Jewish World: Diverse Italian Community Strives to Resolve Tensions

July 1, 1998
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Italy’s small, ancient and highly diversified Jewish community has been so rocked recently by internal tensions over who is a Jew and what is Judaism that some feared it could be split apart.

The crisis pitted increasingly militant religious traditionalists against the non-observant and, as such, mirrored trends evident throughout the Jewish world.

The 35,000-strong community, however, appears to have emerged from its policy- making congress this month with a renewed commitment to compromise that leaders hope will enable different religious trends and traditions to coexist under an umbrella of unity.

"Sometimes crises create their own antibodies," Tullia Zevi, the outgoing president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said in an interview.

Said Francesco Spag???olo, director of a Jewish music study center in Milan, "There are too few of us to split up."

The quadrennial congress, which met here from June 21 to 23, elected a new governing board that is expected at its July 13 meeting to name Venice-based Amos Luzzatto to replace Zevi, who stepped down after an unprecedented four terms as president.

Luzzatto, editor of a prestigious Jewish scholarly review, is a choice that appeals to a broad range of factions within the community.

He is a respected secular intellectual who, at the same time, has a profound knowledge of Jewish religious traditions and is descended from a prominent rabbinic family.

A flash point of the recent tensions among Italy’s Jews was controversy over the conversion of young children of mixed marriages.

Italian Jewry is Orthodox. There are no Reform or Conservative congregations or practicing rabbis here. And, unlike the system of congregations in the United States, Italy, like other European countries, has a kehilla system. One joins the kehilla, or local community, not a congregation — and those not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate are excluded.

Just the same, most Italian Jews are not observant and even Orthodox Jews are traditionally highly acculturated, with a strong Italian identity. The rate of intermarriage is 50 percent or more.

Many intermarried families in Italy have raised their children as Jews, obtaining Orthodox conversions for them when they were infants or toddlers.

Last year, however, a rabbinical ruling decreed that small children could not be converted unless their non-Jewish mothers also were converted. Otherwise, they would be barred from attending Jewish schools.

After widespread debate and protests, the blanket ruling was relaxed to some extent, allowing each community with its rabbis to decide the issue on a case- by-case basis.

The conversion issue, however, reflected more widespread strains, based on mounting concern among rabbis and others that secular Jews had lost sight of what it meant to be Jewish.

"At root is a widespread and advanced loss of Jewish identity, in religious, family and social terms," Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy’s Rabbinical Assembly, told the Union’s congress. Jewish continuity, he warned, was under threat.

"That which once seemed anomalous, illicit, dangerous and exceptional, today for many people no longer is so," he said.

In recent years, some younger people who returned to Orthodox observance became militant in criticizing Jews who were less stringent in their observance. These new Orthodox were in turn branded as "fundamentalists" by secular Jews.

Adding to the complications has been the Italian Jewish community’s unique status in Europe, both for its antiquity and for the divergent elements within such small numbers.

Jews have lived in Rome for more than 2,000 years, making their the oldest continuous Jewish community outside the Holy Land.

"We lived in Rome long before Lubavitch existed and long before Polish Jews knew there was a Poland," said Franco Pavoncello, a board member of Rome’s Jewish community.

Today, about 15,000 Jews live in Rome, and about 10,000 in Milan. The rest live in a score of other towns and cities, mostly in northern Italy, in communities ranging from a small handful to about 1,000 people.

The Rome and Milan communities are comprised both of native Italian Jews and descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 — as well as immigrants who have arrived during the past 30 years.

One-third to one-half of Rome’s Jews are Libyan Jews who fled after bloody anti-Jewish riots in 1967 following the Six-Day War. The Milan Jewish community consists of recent arrivals from more than two dozen countries, with the biggest immigrant group from Iran.

Many of these Jews maintain their own rites and often highly Orthodox lifestyles, which are quite different from the assimilated lifestyles of most Italian Jews.

This, too, has been a cause of friction.

Some Italian Jews have expressed the fear that the historic character of their community, with its tradition of integration, is under siege.

In an article published in April, the man who will soon head Italian Jewry made clear he felt that Italian Jews must learn to coexist in a flexible unity.

"There should be a dialogue among everyone," Luzzato wrote in a Jewish magazine. He appealed for a situation "where the rabbinate is not divided into opposing Orthodox and liberal, but is one sole entity, and is, with this, quite flexible."

The community, too, he wrote, should be one all-encompassing entity that will welcome "Jews who belong to the `Orthodox’ as well as `non-Orthodox’ currents, as long as halachic norms are respected."

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