One Rabbi’s Quixotic Mission to Rebuild a Jewish Community In Sicily

Palermo Archbishop Corrado Lorefice (l) with Shavei Israel’s emissary to Sicily, Rabbi Pinhas Punturello (r); courtesy of Shavei Israel.

By Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello
Exclusive to eJewish Philanthropy

[The small Jewish community of Palermo on the Italian isle of Sicily numbers no more than seventy. But last month, as the JTA reported, the Roman Catholic Church there ceded “the use of part of a church and monastery complex built atop the ruins of a medieval synagogue” to the Jewish community, so that they could open a synagogue. Essential to this cross-communal initiative was the efforts of Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to help descendants of Jews reconnect with the people and State of Israel. What follows are the words of Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Sicily who will act as the synagogue’s rabbi, who talks here about his role in the reconstruction of Jewish life there.]

To walk in Sicily while imagining daily Jewish life renewed in Palermo: it should have been seen as a sign of madness. But this madness is my job. My job is to give answers to questions about identity and in recent years, from Sicily, I received many questions about identity from many different people about their origins. It is no coincidence that a territory with a deep Jewish presence, going back a thousand years, still raises questions about Jewish identity. This, despite the persecution brought about by the Inquisition; despite the centuries that have passed since then; and, despite the modernity that erases traditions and memory. My job is to take these memories and take them real.

Four years ago, I started work as an emissary of Shavei Israel. I wanted to try to see first of all how the city of Palermo would respond to a public meeting with a rabbi, and in October 2012, I began to meet people in a bookshop in the center of town. I expected only a few people would show up, but instead, the bookshop was full. I met there the few Jews in Palermo, people interested in Judaism, people searching for themselves after six hundred years – people were, above all, were simply curious. After all, a rabbi was there to speak about Judaism and the Jewish return to Sicily but a few meters from Piazza Marina, where for centuries, the Marranos, the Bnei Anusim – stubborn Jews that, despite the Inquisition, tried to save and hold onto their Jewish tradition – were executed, set aflame.

Just visiting the Steri Palace in Piazza Marina, seat of the Inquisition for three hundred years, looking at the graffiti left on those walls, steeped in pain, we decided to organize henceforth each year the lighting of a hanukiah in that dark place. It was to be a signal of our return. At our first public Hanukkah celebration at the Steri, more than three hundred people attended the ceremony, and suddenly, the word “Jew” had manifested and become real in Palermo.

Since then, my job has been to create a community, to help people interested in a return path to Judaism, to organize shabbatonim, to attend cultural events, to affirm in every place and at every opportunity that Jewish roots in Sicily have not disappeared. The return of a synagogue in the exact place where there used to be a synagogue for centuries is a sure sign that these roots had not really disappeared – they merely crawled beneath the earth, dormant for centuries, and are now flourishing once more. The flowers that have emerged and will emerge out of these roots have many colors, but with my community, we are starting to offer something new to the city of Palermo: Torah lessons, lectures, and cultural events about some important days in local Jewish history such as January 12, 1493, which during the Inquisition was the last day when Jews could either leave Sicily or face a forced conversion.

After 524 years, we can still hear prayers in Hebrew in Sicily, there are still Jews in Sicily – and there is the future for the community in Sicily. A community that works hard to assert itself, to grow, to find a Jewish rhythm to everyday life, to reinsert Jewish identity into Sicilian identity and Sicilian history, alongside all the other identities and colors and histories present on this wonderful island. From roots, flowers are blooming again. We cannot be sure how many flowers we will see, but every time I am in Palermo and I celebrate Shabbat with my community, I feel I bring a sense of peace just by lighting candles on Friday evening, declaring by its light that darkness cannot prevail.

Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello is the emissary of Shavei Israel in Sicily.