My husband and I are at the halfway point in our five months of volunteer service to two of the three Progressive Jewish communities in Italy: Congregazione Beth Shalom in Milan and Shir Hadash in Florence. We have visited Lev Chadash, here in Milan, also a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). And WUPJ is also trying to grow a group in Rome.
Both congregations we serve are made up of a mix of U.S. and British expatriates and native Italians. Both congregations include Jews married to non-Jews and Jews-by-choice, many of whom grew up in Italian Catholic families. Both function, with difficulty, on the edge of the recognized Jewish communities in their cities.
About 50,000 Jews lived in Italy in 1933; 40,000 survived the war. The European Jewish Congress now estimates the Italian Jewish population to be about 30,000, including a large number of Libyan Jews who came to Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Holocaust is very much a current issue for today’s Jewish community. Last week, RAI-TV, a state-sponsored channel, showed a docudrama, “Under the Roman Sky,” portraying Pope Pius XII as responsible for saving 10,000 Jews. Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni described the series as "junk.
At the same time, there is intense interest in Jewish thought, philosophy, history. Hardly a day goes by that the Corriere della Sera doesn’t have an article on – to paraphrase Saul Bellow – the Hart, Shaffner, & Marx of contemporary Israeli writers: David Grossman, Amos Oz, or A.B. Yehoshua. In fact, yesterday’s Corriere features the new book of Bellow’s letters on its front page, and today’s paper includes a long feature article about I.B. Singer’s The Family Moskat; you don’t find that kind of coverage in The New York Times.
The issue that threatens the community the most is not anti-semitism. Nor is it intermarriage, which now exceeds 50 percent; nor is it the declining birthrate.
Rather – as Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote in an excellent article this past June – it is “a lack of pluralism and increased Orthodox rigidity in the official community” that is alienating and turning people away.
I have written before about the state of Reform/Progressive Judaism in various countries. Italy is typical of other European countries. All citizens have the option to pay a “religious tax” that is then credited to their own religious community, which they designate. For Jews who are considered part of the “official” Jewish community, these revenues are then returned to the Jewish community via the UCEI (unione delle comunità ebraiche Italiane). The problem is that the UCEI, though its mission statement claims that it represents the Jews of Italy, doesn’t recognize nor accept all of them.
No money goes to the Progressive congregations in Florence or Milan. These congregations must shoulder their entire financial burden themselves. They are not listed on the communities’ websites of Jewish organizations. They spend much of their energy trying to let people know they exist. The Internet has helped a bit, but the vast majority of Italian Jews know nothing about Progressive or Reform Judaism. (To be continued.)