Italys Jews survive, even thrive, despite problems with high intermarriage rate

FLORENCE — Jewish community leaders worry about the high intermarriage rate, whether the children of such marriages should be accepted as Jews, and about the separation of church and state.

Sounds like part of the communal agenda in almost any American city, but in this case the concerns are those of the historical Jewish community of Florence, one of Italy's most beautiful cities.

"We have an intermarriage rate of around 50 percent," Rabbi Josef Levi told a scattering of American and Israeli visitors at a kiddush, following a recent Friday night service.

"During the past year, we celebrated five bar mitzvahs, but regrettably no weddings. It is not easy for us to live in a Catholic country, but we are surviving."

Levi, who is in his 40s, had just conducted a Sephardic Orthodox service in the magnificent Moorish-style Florence synagogue, which opened in 1882. The synagogue has survived Nazi desecration, dynamiting and the city's disastrous 1966 flood.

The synagogue, built on a scale to accommodate well over a thousand, drew that night about two dozen men, including numerous foreigners, and another 18 worshippers in the separate women's section.

Earlier in the day, Hulda Liberanome, a journalist and vice president of the Comunita Ebraica di Firenze — the Jewish Community of Florence — shares her knowledge.

She knows precisely the number of Jewish in Florence, 935, because Italian Jews must formally register to belong to the community and must support it with taxes. She estimated that there were an additional 150 unregistered Jews in the city. Throughout Italy, there are about 30,000 registered Jews and approximately 10,000 unregistered ones, with the two largest concentrations in Rome (15,000 registered) and Milan (10,000). The remaining 5,000 registered Jews are scattered throughout such cities as Leghorn, Turin and Venice, down to 11 Jews registered in Parma. Before the anti-Jewish laws introduced by Mussolini in 1938, Italy had 45,000 Jews. About 8,000 perished in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; another 8,000 emigrated after the war, mainly to Israel.

Despite a low birth-rate, the Italian community has recouped some of its losses, mainly through immigration of postwar displaced persons, and Jews from Libya and Iran.

Though Florentine Jews are few in number, they are proving once again that it takes only a small critical mass to trigger a chain reaction of activities and organizations.

Florence has chapters and lodges of the B'nai B'rith, Anti-Defamation League, Women's International Zionist Organization, Maccabi, and the Italian-Israel Friendship Society. There is even a small organization of about 100 "Anglo-Saxon" Jews, consisting mainly of businesspeople, retirees and spouses who married Italian partners.

"Many families have lived here for centuries," said Liberanome. "Everybody knows everybody."

There used to be a Jewish day school in Florence, up to eighth grade, with some 70 to 80 students, but it closed a few years ago.

"Unfortunately, young couples leave for better economic opportunities in Milan, Rome and abroad," said Liberanome.

The community, however, continues to maintain a kindergarten, a Talmud Torah through bar mitzvah age, and a Sunday school.

Besides taxes, the community derives some income from tourism, with the encouragement of the municipality, which last year paid for repairs to the synagogue's majestic dome.

Tour tickets of the synagogue and the historical Jewish Museum on the first floor come to about $5.50 per person. The gift shop does a lively business, even during the off-season.

As in most Italian synagogues, the one in Florence follows Sephardic rites and ritual — meaning Orthodox observance — but in practice is relatively relaxed.

For instance, most congregants will drive on Shabbat, said Liberanome, and the synagogue has recently initiated a form of bat mitzvah services.

There are also divergences, some old and some new, from Sephardic practice. One synagogue in Rome, and another in Turin, observe the Old Italian rites, similar but not identical with Sephardic practice.

Rome and Milan have Ashkenazi congregations, as well as those made up of Iranian and of Libyan Jews. Chabad has established a presence in Florence and Bologna, as well as a synagogue in Milan.

Jewish congregations throughout Italy retain considerable local autonomy, illustrated by current "big battles over how to treat children of mixed-marriages," said Liberanome.

The relatively liberal-minded Levi in Florence has ruled that such children be accepted if their mothers are raising them as Jews. But in Milan, for instance, such youngsters are excluded from the community.

In another, perhaps even more sensitive area, Italian Jews are beginning to fight for separation of church and state in the pope's own backyard.

At the front desk of the Florence community center, housed in the synagogue, are printed petitions to the government, seeking the abolition of all religious instruction in public schools.

Such instruction — meaning Roman Catholic catechism — used to be mandatory for all students, but is now voluntary. Still, said Liberanome, "we are now asking that public schools not be linked to religion in any way."

Not only Jews are lobbying for such a change. "Italy is becoming a more mixed society, with a growing number of Muslims and Buddhists," she added.

The petition, in any case, indicates a growing self-assurance by the Italian Jewish community in the heartland of Catholicism, where 40,000 Jews are engulfed by 57 million Catholics.

Looking at the long-range demographics of Italian Jewry, Liberanome noted that an active nucleus of volunteers in such cities as Florence "is working very hard to keep things going.

"But I'm afraid that in the very small communities, Jewish life won't survive for very long."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent