CATANIA, Italy (JTA) — Rabbi Gilberto Ventura believes his synagogue has the most beautiful view in the world. Located in the tower of a century-old castle on the slopes of Mt. Etna in the eastern Sicilian city of Catania, the synagogue is wedged between a snow-capped volcano and the sun-kissed Mediterranean sea.
The 49-year-old Brazil-born rabbi also thinks his congregation is one of the most unique in the world. It’s made up mainly of Bnei Anusim — descendants of Jews forced to hide their religious practice and convert to Catholicism after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Before that infamous decree, Sicily was home to tens of thousands of Jews.
The synagogue, which was first inaugurated last fall, is the result of decades of grassroots efforts by those descendants in Catania to find each other and forge a sense of community that had been lacking for centuries.
Hiring a full-time rabbi was the last piece of the puzzle, and Ventura, who has a long history of working with communities of Bnei Anusim in Brazil, was a natural candidate. He arrived in Catania in January.
“I really believe that the future Judaism in the world, especially in some places like Italy and, of course, Brazil, is connected to the Bnei Anusim, and the need to embrace the Bnei Anusim,” Ventura said.
But in an ongoing point of frustration, the formal organization representing Italian Jewry, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), does not recognize them as Jews.
“In the case of Catania, this strange Jewish community hasn’t passed all the steps the law requires,” said Giulio Di Segni, the vice president of UCEI.
He was referring to the fact that the community did not seek UCEI’s permission before establishing themselves under the name “Jewish community of Catania.” Per Italian law, UCEI has a monopoly on acknowledging and establishing Jewish communal life in Italy — including authority over who can use the term “Jewish community of” in formal ways.
“UCEI can’t accept this because it is too easy,” he added. “We are not against their synagogue or their way of prayer, but they cannot use the name ‘Jewish community of Catania.’”
Catania’s Jewish community members told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency a variety of stories about their Jewish backgrounds. Some came from families that always outwardly identified as Jewish. Others identified the source of family traditions practiced by parents and grandparents who — as descendants of Jews who faced persecution for practicing Judaism — still felt the need to hide aspects of their Jewishness from the public eye.
In the midst of questions about their ancestry, the majority of the Jewish community members have undergone Orthodox conversions. But that hasn’t led to their acceptance.
Benito Triolo, president of the Catania Jewish community, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he first came to Judaism at the age of 40, thanks to the insight of a Jewish friend in Palermo, Sicily’s capital and most populous city. Working together, they established a Charter of Sicilian Jewry, which aimed to identify and highlight the Jewish heritage of neighborhoods across the island.
While working on that project, Triolo came closer to his own Jewish heritage, and after years of study, he completed an Orthodox conversion through a rabbi in Miami 25 years ago.
Another community member, who was born Alessandro Scuderi but today goes by the name of Yoram Nathan, first felt drawn to Judaism as a child watching news of the Six-Day War in 1967. At first, he was laughed at by other members of his family — except his grandmother, who happened to have a tradition of lighting eight candles in early winter and baking flat unleavened bread around Easter time.
Decades of study later, Scuderi also completed a formal conversion to Judaism before an Orthodox rabbinic court, or beit din.
Others had more straightforward backgrounds.
“I was born in a Jewish family,” said David Scibilia, the community’s secretary. “Frankly speaking, we were not hiding or deep in the shadows in this part of the country.”
Scibilia said that his father explained to him that he was a Jew as early as the age of four. Within their own home, they observed holidays and kept Shabbat — no easy task since Italian schools at the time of his childhood in the 1970s had class on Saturdays. He did not eat meat until he was an adult and was able to acquire kosher meat.
He said that his family had maintained their Jewish identity since the days of the Inquisition and married amongst a small group of other similar families.
“I was a Jew, but not part of any community,” Scibilia said. “Just my family was my community.”
Scibilia explained that once he had a child of his own, he realized he did not want her to have the same lonely Jewish experience. But when he reached out to UCEI, he said he found the proverbial door to organized Jewish life shut. Earning membership in Jewish community organizations across Western Europe involves a strict vetting process, and many groups require applicants to prove their mothers’ Jewishness according to varying standards.
Scibilia’s experience was echoed by Jews outside of the community in Catania and across Italy’s south who talked to JTA — a feeling of neglect or rejection by UCEI for those who fall outside of the norms of Italian Judaism.
UCEI currently recognizes 19 Jewish communities across northern Italy and just one in the south, in Naples, which has jurisdiction over the rest of the southern half of the peninsula and the island of Sicily. The organization recognizes around 28,000 Jews in total across the country.
Scibilia noted that despite his Jewish upbringing, he has multiple certificates of conversion from Orthodox rabbis. The first came from a beit din of American rabbis from who traveled to Syracuse, Sicily, to assess Scibilia and others like him in Sicily. His second comes from the conversion court of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is known for its exacting Orthodox standards.
Both were rejected by Italy’s own Orthodox rabbinate, and he was forced to stand before another rabbinic court in Italy.
“I have at this moment — don’t start to laugh — three documents that prove that I am a Jew, two Ketubah [marriage contracts] for my wedding, and so on, again and again and again,” Scibilia said.
Others’ experiences in the region have been even more fraught, he said.
“The problem in Italy, that if you try to study with any rabbi here, you can study for 20 years, maybe you can die even before you reach the end of the tunnel,” he said. “From my point of view, they are playing with the spirituality of these people.”
In a statement last year, UCEI called the the Catanians “a phantom ‘Jewish community’” and accused them of “misleading the local institutions and deluding believers and sympathizers into adhering to traditional religious rites, never actually recognized or authorized by the Italian rabbinical authority.”
“Between UCEI and the Italian republic is an agreement signed in ‘87,” Di Segni said. “This law means everything about Jewish communities in Italy is through the Union Jewish community in Italy (UCEI).”
Triolo said he isn’t too concerned about UCEI’s recognition.
“Ours is a process of refounding old communities that existed as early as 200 and up to 1492,” Triolo said. “Our recognition is already in our history. At that time the UCEI did not exist. We were there and we simply returned!”
No one knows when Jews first arrived in Sicily, but the Talmud tells a story that claims Rabbi Akiva, a well-known early rabbinic sage, visited the island in the early second century and told of a small Jewish community in Syracuse. Some historians believe the Roman writer Caecilius Calactinus — who was born in a town near Messina in the first century B.C.E — to have been of Jewish origin.
All agree that over the course of history, Sicily’s Jews watched as the island was traded between Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and half a dozen other empires. The narrative has also long been that Jewish life there ended five centuries ago, under Spanish rule.
The Spanish empire’s Jews suffered the same fate as Jews from the Iberian peninsula, who would become known to the world as Sephardim when they were expelled in 1492.
The descendents of Spain — and Sicily — spread throughout the world, establishing communities in North Africa, throughout the Ottoman empire, in the Netherlands and ultimately the British Isles and North America, as it was believed that Judaism faded away in their homelands.
Catania’s Jews disagree, arguing that many Jews practiced their religion over the centuries, in secret.
Triolo and others in the community formally inaugurated their synagogue in October. It was furnished with Torah scrolls donated by the Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, D.C.
The synagogue is situated in the tower of the Castello Luecatia, an early 20th-century structure built by a merchant believed to be of Jewish origin. The building was granted to the community by the city’s municipality.
“So they had the people, they had a synagogue, but they needed somebody to teach,” Ventura said.
Ventura, who is Orthodox, may be the island’s first permanent working rabbi in over 500 years, but it’s not his first time working with Bnei Anusim.
Back in his native Brazil, Ventura was the leader of the Synagogue Without Borders, an organization through which he served 15 communities in Brazil’s north that were made up of descendants of Jews who came with the first Portuguese colonists to South America and who ultimately had to hide their identity as the Inquisition spread to the New World.
His work there put him in conflict with Brazil’s Jewish establishment, too. But Ventura is unfazed.
In Brazil, he founded synagogues and summer camps and built mikvahs and yeshivas across the country’s north. Since 2015, he has facilitated the conversion of hundreds of Bnei Anusim, bringing them back into the fold of mainstream Orthodox Judaism.
“I am a teacher since I was 21 years old,” he said. “Now I am 49, along with my wife. It’s one of the things we love to do, and know how to do. To teach Jewish philosophy, to teach Torah, to teach Tanakh, to teach the story of the Jews in Brazil, and now we are starting to teach the story of the Jews in Italy, the story of the Inquisition etcetera.”
In Castello Leucatia, he leads Shabbat services with the energy of a gospel preacher, pausing between prayers to explain a verse, teach a new tune, welcome latecomers, or simply to allow the congregation to talk.
“This is what’s most important,” he remarked during one such lull on a recent Friday night. “That they get to talk and be a community.”
Ventura had organized a Shabbat event for other Jews across Italy — from Naples to Turin — who shared his belief that the future of Judaism was in communities like the one in Catania.
“Our point of view of Judaism is that we have to be a part of society, we don’t have to insulate ourselves, we believe that Judaism has a lot to contribute to society,” Ventura said. “In Brazil, we have a lot of connections with people from the periphery, in the favela and other communities, immigrants, Indians, etcetera. So that is something we want to establish here, to teach the people a Judaism that brings good things to the wider society.”
Ventura isn’t the only one working with such communities in southern Italy. Across the Strait of Messina, Jewish life has also been on the rise in Calabria — the toe of Italy’s boot — thanks to an American-born rabbi named Barbara Aiello.
Aiello, though raised in Pittsburgh, is of Calabrian descent. She returned to the land of her ancestors in the early 2000s and began working with the Bnei Anusim there, ultimately establishing a synagogue called Ner Tamid del Sud, meaning “eternal light of the south.”
“Until now, nobody took care of Judaism in the south of Italy,” Scibilia said while looking out at the Mediterranean from the terrace of Castello Leucatia.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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