A Tale of Two Synagogues

A Jewish community that does not value and promote Jewish learning will not long endure. A Jewish community that places Jewish education “front and center” can thrive, and contribute to the society of which it is a part.

The Synagogue in Florence, Italy.

The Synagogue in Florence, Italy.

by Dr. Gil Graff

Shabbat is, generally, a time for reflection; all the more so, Shabbat in the month of Elul, approaching the New Year. In this context, recent experiences of successive shabbatot “on the road,” proved particularly thought-provoking. The first Shabbat – in Jerusalem – I attended morning services at the Ramban synagogue in the Katamon neighborhood. The hundreds of seats in the modest sanctuary were filled, early on, by men, women and children of all ages.

During the course of the service, the rabbi delivered a 10 minute Torah lesson focused on the tension between doing what is yashar (straight, upright) in the eyes of God and simply doing as one pleases (“yashar, ” as it were, in one’s own eyes). Beyond explicating a verse in the day’s Torah reading, the talk was an “infomercial” for a congregational study session/discussion to be held at the synagogue Sunday evening on the question of how to appropriately celebrate the milestone of bat mitzvah. It happens that this is a particularly timely question at Ramban, as a “surge” in bat mitzvah aged girls is on the near horizon in the congregational family (I attended the very engaging Sunday evening discussion, but resist further digression…).

Shabbat afternoon, I returned to the synagogue for a class – part of a summer series on sages of the Talmud – conducted by the rabbi during the hour preceding minchah, the afternoon service. Hundreds of people – a packed house – took advantage of this study opportunity, remaining for minchah. It was a memorable Shabbat day, suffused with the vitality of Jewish learning and shared experience, within and beyond the walls of that particular synagogue.

The following Shabbat, I was in Florence, Italy, at what is surely one of the world’s most beautiful synagogue structures. Completed in 1882, the 1500 seat sanctuary serves a community of 1000 Jews, few of whom enter the building on days other than Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. But for tourists, there would scarcely have been a minyan, on that Shabbat in August. As many as 120 people entered the sanctuary in the morning, 40 of them returning as Shabbat drew to a close. The Florentine Jewish community declined from 2000 to 1500 during World War II as a result of deportations and executions. Since that time, “natural” erosion has further diminished the community. A dedicated, Jerusalem-educated rabbi of Italian descent serves the congregation; a Talmud Torah is maintained, offering limited Jewish educational opportunities to “next generation” Jewish children and youth.

There are those who opine that all Jewish communities outside Israel are fated to disappear. The reality is, though, that Jewish communities throughout the world – in Israel and outside Israel – have flourished and declined over centuries and millennia. Consistently, across time and place, Jewish learning has been essential to the vitality of Jewish life for individuals, families and communities. A Jewish community that does not value and promote Jewish learning will not long endure. A Jewish community that places Jewish education “front and center” can thrive, and – drawing upon Jewish teachings – contribute to the society of which it is a part. The tale of American Jewry will be shaped by the degree to which we individually and collectively recognize this age-old truth. As Ecclesiastes observed, millennia ago: “Let the living take it to heart.”

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

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  1. says

    Too bad he was not in Florence on a Thursday night this summer, when hundreds (sometimes as many as 600 or 700) people gathered in the garden of the synagogue for the weekly edition of “Balagan cafe,” informal learning and Jewish culture evenings combining concerts, lectures, children’s activities, kosher cuisine and more.

  2. Gil Graff says

    I’m happy to let you know that I was in the Florence synagogue garden on a Thursday night in August, with as many as 150 locals and tourists, enjoying food and music in that beautiful setting. I admire the community’s efforts to create shared experiences and portals of entry. Jewish education, in a broad range of expressions, is essential to the vitality of Jewish life.