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Italian Jews, too, struggle with religious-secular tensions

ROME _ The tensions pitting Orthodox Jewish traditionalists against more secular Jews over such issues as”who is a Jew,”which has created political crises in Israel and threatened to divide the large Jewish community in the United States, have also been simmering for the past year in Italy’s tiny Jewish community. The tensions threatened to boil […]

ROME _ The tensions pitting Orthodox Jewish traditionalists against more secular Jews over such issues as”who is a Jew,”which has created political crises in Israel and threatened to divide the large Jewish community in the United States, have also been simmering for the past year in Italy’s tiny Jewish community. The tensions threatened to boil over at last month’s quadrennial policy-making meeting of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities as rabbis warned of a”profound crisis of identity.” But the 35,000-member Italian Jewish community appears to have emerged from the meeting with a renewed commitment to compromise that leaders hope will enable different religious trends and traditions to coexist under an umbrella of unity.”Jewish unity was the victor,”Franco Pavoncello, who is on the board of the Rome Jewish community, told RNS after the meeting.”There is a mood of good will.” The meeting elected a new governing board for the Union, which on July 13 named Venice-based physician and scholar Amos Luzzatto as president. Luzzatto, 70, replaces Tullia Zevi, who stepped down after an unprecedented four terms of office. During her presidency Zevi spoke out forcefully against racial and ethnic intolerance and became a high-profile voice of moral authority in Italy. Little-known outside the Jewish community, Luzzatto appeals to a broad range of factions within Italian Jewry. A respected secular intellectual and editor of a prestigious Jewish scholarly review, he also has a profound knowledge of Jewish religious traditions and is descended from a prominent rabbinic family. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to heal the profound divisions over who is a Jew and what is Judaism that have wracked the community.”There is a will to find a common denominator, a common language. I’m not fooling myself, but I think that the different positions can come closer,”the bearded, bespectacled Luzzatto said.”I’m not an angel who fell from heaven, and I have a term of four years ahead of me, but I’m confident that it will happen.” Zevi said she had”full confidence”in Luzzatto.”It is important that our tradition go on and that our communal life both lives up to our centuries’ old tradition and looks to the future in full awareness of contemporary problems,”she said in an interview. Italy’s Jewish community is nominally Orthodox and there are no Reform or Conservative congregations or rabbis. As in other European nations, Jews join community organizations rather than congregations. At the same time, however, most Italian Jews are not observant, and even observant Jews are traditionally highly acculturated, with a strong Italian as well as Jewish identity. The intermarriage rate is 50 percent or more. Controversy over the conversion of young children of mixed marriages has been a flashpoint for the tensions simmering among Italian Jews. Italian rabbis, however, feel the conversion issue is the tip of an iceberg. Italy’s secular Jews, they argue, are losing sight of what it means to be Jewish. The rabbis have been joined in recent years by younger Jews who returned to strict observance and became increasingly militant in criticizing secular Jews. Secular Jews in turn have branded these new traditionalists as”fundamentalists.””There is a profound crisis of identity in our community,”Milan rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy’s Rabbinical Assembly, warned at the Union’s congress.”Despite lively signs of Jewish interest, there are signs of abandonment, more widespread than ever before, and even more dangerous because they involve the social and family structures.” Complicating matters has been Italian Jewry’s unique historic and demographic status in Europe. Jews have lived continuously in Rome for more than 2,000 years, making theirs the oldest Jewish community in Europe. The special”Italian”religious rite pre-dates that of Sephardic or Ashkenazic Jews, the main ethnic streams of Jews. But there is also wide diversity among the community’s small numbers. 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 1,000 or so. The Rome and Milan communities are comprised both of native Italian Jews with ancient roots and Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 as well as immigrants who have arrived over the past 30 years. But Zevi said such divisions and conflicts should not be exaggerated.”We are a community that defines itself as Orthodox,”she said.”In Italy we do not have a liberal Judaism, but what is important is to respect the existence of different degrees of intensity of observance, including those who observe all 613 commandments.” DEA END GRUBER