Over 500 years since the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily led to the destruction of an ancient culture and the obliteration of one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities, a synagogue is to open in the island’s capital, Palermo.
What’s more, this is the result of a momentous accord between the local Catholic Church and the town’s resurgent Jewish community. Last month Palermo’s Archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, officially granted the community the use of a disused Baroque oratory, St Mary of Saturday, for their new synagogue.
Situated in the heart of what used to be the town’s old Jewish quarter, in an area formerly occupied by the Great Synagogue, the building is about to undergo extensive refurbishment work before its official opening, slated for 2018.
It may still be little more than a shell but the “new” synagogue has already been the subject of huge interest. One of the stars of the European Day of Jewish Culture which took place last month, it was also featured in the prestigious annual Treasures Routes event, which showcases the region’s hidden treasures.
Evelyne Aouate has, more than anybody else, spearheaded this Jewish revival and can still hardly believe it. A French-Algerian and long-term Palermo resident, Mrs Aouate felt for years like “the only Jew in town”. As President of the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies, she struggled to rekindle interest in the town’s seemingly forgotten Jewish past.
Then in 2013, the event that — in her words — “lit the fuse”. Rabbi Pierpaolo Punturello of Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel, an organisation that helps people reconnect with their Jewish roots, approached her to organise a three-day seminar on Jewish culture in Palermo.
“We had no contacts,” Mrs Aouate recalled, “so we asked a bookshop if we could hold it there. We didn’t know if anybody would turn up but from the first day it was packed, with standing room only.”
On the last day, Rabbi Punturello issued a challenge: why not light the Chanukah candles at Palazzo Steri? Someone was despatched to get permission from the university, which now owns the building that was once used as a prison during the inquisition. The answer was yes.
Then just over a year ago Mrs Aouate and her two close collaborators, Luciana Pepi and Maria Antonietta Ancona, asked the Archbishop to help the Palermo Jewish community “get a home.” Three weeks later he called to offer the oratory.
From then on, interest in Palermo’s long-forgotten Jewish history has kept on growing and so has the community, which has become a port of call for Jews from all over Sicily. They often join Rabbi Punturello and the congregation for the Sabbath celebrations.
“It has had a snowballing effect,” says Mrs Aouate, explaining that Palermo and her new synagogue have become a favourite destination for Jews from all over the world.
She hopes this will help with the fundraising — although the municipality will pay for most of the building’s refurbishment work, the community will have to provide the rest. She would love to restore the beautiful 18th century benches and the wrought-iron chandeliers, among many things.
She is optimistic: she knows miracles happen.