Question in Italy: How do we reach Orthodox Jews?

Rabbi Elia Richetti, the president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, mingles with tourists outside the Jewish Museum in Venice (Ruth Ellen Gruber/JTA Photo Service)

ROME (JTA) — The years-long battle that ended recently with the dismissal of the chief rabbi of Turin, Italy, highlights a 21st-century identity crisis afflicting the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora.

Rabbi Alberto Somekh, who like all recognized rabbis in Italy is Orthodox, had served as chief rabbi in Turin since 1992. But critics said he had antagonized a sizable segment of the city’s largely non-observant 900-member Jewish community with a confrontational personal style.

His ouster last month marked the first-ever dismissal of a chief rabbi in an Italian Jewish community. It focused attention on the challenges facing Italian Jews, ranging from intermarriage, falling birth rates and budget woes to factionalism, political infighting, and sharp divisions over religious practice and Orthodoxy.

In particular, some have become disaffected by what they say is a lack of pluralism and increased Orthodox rigidity in the official community, alienating many.

“Italian Jewry was always nominally Orthodox but it accepted everybody, observant or not, under one umbrella,” Daniele Nahum, 27, the recently elected vice president of the Milan Jewish community, told JTA. “Now, however, the rabbis here have been adopting a more conservative mentality, and this has pushed some people toward Reform or Chabad.”

The Jewish presence in Italy dates back to ancient Roman times. Approximately 30,000 Jews now live in the country, but only about 25,000 are formally affiliated with Italy’s official Jewish communities in cities such as Turin, Milan and Rome — and the number dwindles from year to year. Most Jews live in Rome, with about 12,000 affiliated, and Milan, with about 6,000 affiliated.

Italy has no national chief rabbi, but the post of chief rabbi exists as a tenured position in some of the 21 communities linked under the umbrella of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI. The UCEI leadership serves as the official political representative of Italian Jewry.

About three years ago, when the community’s lay leadership initiated attempts to oust Somekh from the Turin post, Turin Jewish community president Tullio Levi accused Somekh of “attitudes of ill-concealed or even open contempt” for less observant members of the community, as well as a “serious lack of sensitivity and consideration” for their problems.

Community leaders formally ordered Somekh’s dismissal in early 2009, but rabbi appealed — his appeal was rejected last month. While Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the decision had nothing to do with Somekh’s Orthodoxy or alleged rigidity, Somekh had become a symbol of the lack of openness to non-Orthodox Jewish practice.

Somekh himself declined to comment about the issue, but told JTA he “feels good” and is moving on. Orthodoxy historically has been the only recognized Jewish stream in Italy, and the Somekh incident illustrates tensions between the official Orthodox establishment and parts of the broader Jewish population.

“The leadership of the Italian Jewish community is very concerned that it continues to be recognized by the Israeli rabbinical establishment as being Orthodox,” said Lisa Palmieri Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s representative in Rome. “But the fact is that a very large section of Italian Jews behave as Reform or Liberal Jews would in other countries, or are totally secular. At the moment, a feeling of belonging to an emotionally cohesive, culturally unified ‘ethnic’ group is lacking.”

One especially painful controversy in a country where the rate of intermarriage is high stemmed from rabbinical decisions over the past few years that have barred or sharply limited the conversion of young children of non-Jewish mothers in mixed marriages.

“In Venice 30 years or so ago, it was sufficient to say to the community that you wanted your child to be Jewish,” Anna Vera Sullam, a Venice Jewish community leader, told JTA. “Now it’s much stricter. Child conversion doesn’t exist anymore.”

Others see the problem differently. More than 250 people, for example, joined a Facebook group set up to support Somekh after his dismissal was made final.

“It’s clear that a great part of the community has lost the intellectual tools to comprehend the role of a rabbi according to Jewish tradition,” one member, Paolo Schiunnach, wrote on Facebook. “Rabbis are not just salaried functionaries, with merely pastoral and preaching roles,” he wrote.

“The rabbi is a scholar who has received smicha and is authorized to decide on community needs and general and particular halachah,” or Jewish law. Dario Calimani, a member of the UCEI council, said inconsistency and lack of communication in the Italian Rabbinate itself is part of the problem.

“In Italy there is no national mark for kashrut, there is no unified policy on conversion, there is no halachic coordination in general or synergy in the cultural field, there is no agreed policy regarding relations with the Catholic Church,” Calimani wrote in a recent edition of the Turin Jewish magazine Ha Keillah.

“In a community as small as that in Italy, coordinated solutions should be sought,” he said. “Instead, we see kashrut treated as a purely commercial question, and conversions that provoke communal crises or are resolved outside the rules.” Rabbis themselves recognize many of these problems.

“Kashrut is an issue,” said Rabbi Elia Richetti, the chief rabbi of Venice and newly elected president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly. “And we need training for kosher butchers and mohelim. We also need closer contacts among the rabbis around the country.” In this regard, he added, “I think it would be helpful to create a website for the Rabbinical Assembly.”

Italy’s Jewish establishment also appears to lack a strategy on how to deal with the small new Reform congregations that have cropped up over the past few years in Milan and a few other cities. Though not recognized or funded by the UCEI, several of them offer increasingly broad services, including conversion, and they reach out to intermarried Jews and others who feel alienated by official communal institutions. Chabad, meanwhile, has been a well-established presence in Italy for more than 50 years and is very active in Rome, Milan, Venice and other cities. But it, too, operates outside the official Jewish establishment.

In an attempt to tackle at least some key problems, the UCEI has mandated an overhaul of the official statute that governs organized Jewish communal life. A special UCEI commission was charged with the job, and in recent months its work has generated considerable debate in the community.

Much of the statute reform targets organizational issues, but also under discussion are relations between rabbis and their communities, including possible term limits for chief rabbis. Jewish central institutions must “open themselves to an external society that is ever more complex, globalized and multi-ethnic,” UCEI president Renzo Gattegna said in an official report in 2008.

They must also, he said, “abandon those old prejudices, those old parochialisms and those misunderstandings between larger and smaller communities that have ended up diminishing the potential of Italian Jews.”

“There’s an enormous demographic crisis” in Italian Jewry, Guido Vitale, the editor of the Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche, told JTA. But in the end, he said, “it’s values that count, not numbers.”