While Reform Judaism in the US prides itself on inclusivity, the Orthodox community in Italy is tightly exclusionary. The impact on individuals is the saddest part of this story.
In some Italian cities, only children of “community” members are allowed to attend Jewish educational programs. Decisions about “who is a Jew” in Italy – after a long history of inclusion and acceptance – have become as restrictive and repressive as those in Israel. Unless one can provide several generations of ketubot to prove one’s mother was Jewish, one will likely be rejected. People who have been members of the community for years would not be accepted if they applied today. How many of us have our great-great grandmother’s ketubah from Poland or Lithuania?
Two weeks ago a student from California found her way to Shabbat services at Shir Chadash, the Progressive congregation in Florence. A member since childhood of an Orthodox synagogue, she had gone on Kol Nidre to the Great Synagogue in Florence only to be turned away flatly and told no one who was not a member of the “community” was allowed to attend.
A few weeks ago, I sent an email to the main synagogue in Milan, inquiring about the times of Shabbat services. I never received a response. Last Saturday morning, we went anyway. The security agents outside the building didn’t bother me; in fact, in contrast to the grilling we’ve gone through in other cities, it was nothing.
What did bother me – us – was that once inside the building, there was no sign, no person to tell us where to go, how to enter the sanctuary, which of several doors to walk through. We had been at the synagogue in September for the European Day of Jewish Culture, but we hadn’t come in the same entrance, and it was confusing.
I knew women had to sit upstairs, so I headed there. In the balcony, I saw no prayerbooks. A few women were scattered around, mostly in pairs, and they all stared at me. No one came over. Finally I went over to one woman who was studying a prayerbook and asked her where they were kept; she pointed vaguely to the other side of the balcony.
We left after an hour. There were about 80 people there by the time we left, at the end of the rabbi’s sermon: about 40 men and 40 women. No one greeted us, no one said “Shabbat shalom” till some teenagers, running into the building as we left, mumbled it to Fred.
Not only is the community unwelcoming. This past summer, a Chabad rabbi in Milan publicly made the outrageous and totally unfounded charge that Progressive congregation Lev Chadash had served lobster at its seder. As the battle raged in the Italian media – which couldn’t quite grasp what was happening – he finally retracted his charges around Yom Kippur, but refused to apologize for his preposterous claims.
“We are Orthodox in our traditions,” one member of an old Italian family told me, “but Reform in our daily lives.” Not really. Such thinking unfortunately reflects a gross misunderstanding of Reform Judaism.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would comprehend and embrace the idea that there is more than one way to be Jewish.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would be concerned about the disenfranchisement of other Jews in their midst.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would advocate for religious equality of all Jews: men and women, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, rabbis and lay people.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would welcome the non-Jews in their midst, whether married to Jews or seeking a path to spiritual fulfillment through Judaism.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would demand religious freedom and cultural pluralism for all Jews.
If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would acknowledge that through community they will strengthen one another.
“Schwer tzu zein a yid.” – It's not easy to be a Jew. To be a Reform Jew in Italy is to struggle daily with invisibility.