Sicily was home to some of the first Jewish communities in Western Europe, likely founded before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Then the island’s Jews, like many of its residents at the time, were Greek speakers, and they remained so for centuries. At the end of the first millennium, Sicilian Jews enjoyed close proximity to Bari and Otranto—great centers of rabbinic scholarship on the southern part of the Italian mainland. Diana Furchtgott-Roth reports on Sicilian Jewry’s recent revival, and the extinction that preceded it:
Jews in Sicily celebrated traditional Sabbath services for the first time in 500 years last month when Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, DC delivered a Torah to the newly established synagogue in Catania. Having been expelled from Spanish territory, which then included Sicily and southern Italy, by Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1492, many Jews fled. Those who remained were compelled to convert to Catholicism. But Herzfeld’s visit changed the trajectory of Jewish history in Sicily.
Located on the top floor of the city-owned castle of Leucatia, the new synagogue has a capacity of about 100 and suits its setting perfectly. Its floor-to-ceiling doors open to a large terrace with views of the sea to one side and views of Mount Etna, the volcano with its smoking plumes, to the other. Windows opposite the doors admit a constant sea breeze.
Rabbis from three countries officiated at the October 28 transfer of the Torah to Catania’s synagogue, and people came from as far away as Uruguay, Israel, and America, as well as from all over Italy, to witness and participate in the historic event. Some Sicilians are discovering their Jewish roots and welcomed the opportunity to learn about Judaism and connect with their religious community. A handful have even converted to Judaism. In stark contrast to Sicily’s former persecution of Jews, Catania’s authorities facilitated the dedication of the new synagogue and provided a visible police force to protect the Jewish worshipers.