Intermarriage is a growing issue not just here in the United States but in every Jewish community outside of Israel, and I was reminded of that fact while on vacation last week in Rome, Italy. The Jewish community in Rome has a fascinating history dating continuously from the second century B.C.E. Its unique history was vividly brought to life by tour guide Micaela Pavoncello, who specializes in walking tours of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and is herself a proud Roman Jew. I wasn’t the first JOI staff member to take Micaela’s tour; our executive director Kerry Olitzky recommended her to me and my family after his visit to Rome a couple of years ago. Now we at JOI are recommending her to anyone who happens to visit Rome and wants to connect with a fascinating and still vibrant Jewish community.
Touring the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is especially powerful in light of the mandatory visit all tourists must make to the Vatican State, walking-distance across the Tiber River that includes incredible riches such as the gold- and marble-covered St. Peter’s Basilica (largest church in the world) and Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel ceiling. To then have Micaela explain the long, sad story of the relationship between Rome’s Popes and Rome’s Jews—and to walk the tiny three-square-blocks in which thousands of Jews at a time were forced to live—is a moving experience, and one that also illustrates just how far Jews have come in recent generations.
Today, the Jewish Ghetto has become so trendy that high rents are forcing out most long-standing residents, as reported in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. More importantly, the decline in anti-Semitism and the acceptance of Jews has led to an increasing rate of intermarriage among Rome’s Jews, who number less than one percent of the total Roman population.
Unfortunately, as in much of Europe (see this recent article about British Jews), the organized community there seems ill-equipped to handle the phenomenon and unwilling to learn from the U.S. experience. Micaela explained that intermarried couples are generally shunned, and even the conversion process presents high barriers: a three-year study period before conversion. What’s worse, Micaela implied that even those who convert may not feel fully accepted by the tight-knit Jewish community.
Rome is yet another example of a Jewish community that has succeeded in breaking the shackles of anti-Semitism to win freedom and acceptance, but now must deal with the byproduct of that freedom: higher intermarriage with the very people who now accept them as equals. The doors out of the Jewish Ghetto have been flung wide open, and now the Roman Jewish community has got to figure out how to open some doorways back into their community for unaffiliated and intermarried Jewish families, or their numbers will inevitably decline. Micaela’s tours, which include the small but beautiful museum in the basement of the Great Synagogue of Rome (in Italian, it’s the Tempio Maggiore di Roma), can certainly serve as an entry point for reconnecting with a history and a people.
Tour guide Micaela Pavoncello discusses the ancient Roman ruins that have been excavated in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome.
The beautiful Great Synagogue of Rome.
Micaela explains that the Ghetto used to be all narrow streets like this one, and only recently has been gentrified.
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