US rabbi revives Jewish roots in her family’s Italian town


SERRASTRETTA, Italy — From a rustic, tiny synagogue she recreated from her family’s ancestral home in this mountain village, an American rabbi is keeping a promise she made to her Italian-born father: bring back the people of this southern region of Calabria To connect with their Jewish roots, ties were nearly severed five centuries ago when the Inquisition forced Jews to convert to Christianity.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is also helping to revitalize Serrastretta, one of the many small towns in the south struggling with depopulation as young people migrate in droves in search of work and where deaths far outweigh births each year surpasses

In addition to the chatter of visitors, who come to their synagogue curious about Judaism in predominantly Catholic Italy, the laughter of newly arrived children echoes through the city. This spring, the rabbi helped bring Ukrainian refugees, some with Jewish roots, here for temporary and, the Serrastretta mayor hopes, perhaps permanent living.

A yellowed family portrait stands on a small wooden table near the entrance to the synagogue. The photo shows the rabbi’s father, Antonio Abramo Aiello, as a child. Born in Serrastretta, he was studying for his bar mitzvah, the rabbi said, but before this religious ritual of coming of age could take place, young Aiello went to the United States with his family in 1923.

His daughter Barbara was born in Pittsburgh and ordained a rabbi at age 51 in a small branch of American Judaism known as the Reconstructionist Movement.

Before training to become a rabbi, Aiello taught special needs children for many years and created a puppet show to teach tolerance to children. She was ordained at Rabbinical Seminary International in New York and ministered in a synagogue in Florida for a few years before moving to Italy, where she first worked as a rabbi in Milan from 2004 to 2005. Then she realized her passion to serve as a rabbi in her late father’s hometown.

When visitors from abroad come to her synagogue for ceremonies, Rabbi Aiello, 74, shows them the house in the former Jewish quarter of the nearby town of Lamezia Terme, where her father learned his Jewish faith.

She points to a plaque that reads, “A busy community was active in this neighborhood” of Jews from the 13th to the 16th centuries.

One recent summer evening, as Aiello, wearing a yarmulke and a necklace with a small Star of David, passed by on her way to the old quarter, a local resident, Emilio Fulvo, 73, jumped up from a bench to greet her. When he was 15, Fulvo said, genealogical research discovered that his family had Jewish roots.

When I found out about his background, “I felt free,” Fulvo said. “I knew something was missing” growing up as a Catholic in southern Italy.

Families like his are known as B’nai Anusim, descendants of “those who were forced to accept Christian baptism and publicly renounce their Judaism,” the rabbi said.

In her family, “legends were passed that we were Jews and were expelled from Spain in 1492” as the Inquisition gathered momentum, Aiello said. Eventually, the Aiellos made their way to the southern end of the Apennines, where Serrastretta sits perched on a road that winds through slopes densely forested with beech, pine and chestnut trees.

The remoteness of many villages in Calabria, coupled with the tendency of Italians to live in the same place for generations, and the strength of oral tradition helped keep alive what Roque Pugliese, a Jew in Calabria, called the “spark of the… Judaism”, even among those who do not know that they have Jewish roots.

Pugliese, a doctor who immigrated from Argentina, recalled once hearing residents of a nursing home in Calabria singing an old song about Passover, softly, as if afraid of being overheard.

There is a Star of David on a stone wall along a walkway leading to Aiello’s house and synagogue

On a recent Friday afternoon, she provided a bowl of cherries and a tray of miniature pastries for those who turned up for a bat mitzvah sought by the Blum family of Parkland, Fla. Despite the long distance, they chose Aiello because she worked as a special education teacher before becoming a rabbi and her daughter Mia has autism.

Vira, one of five Ukrainian mothers brought to Serrastretta with nine children thanks to the efforts of Aiello and the logistical help of a Serrastretta local, pushed a stroller up the steep road leading to the synagogue. Transportation and housing costs were paid for by donors, most of whom were Jews, in Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada, the rabbi said.

Two of the women have since returned to Ukraine, including the wife of an Orthodox Christian priest. But Vira, who asked that her last name not be published because her husband, who still lives in Ukraine, works for a government ministry, said she was considering settling in Serrastretta.

“First is my son, my only son, his life, his future, his security,” Vira said of 2½-year-old Plato. “Barbara invited us to a safe place. It really was like a miracle.”

Vira is also grateful for the opportunity to learn about Judaism. Her grandmother, who was born in Crimea, is Jewish. But her father, a Russian, would take her to church, so she never went to a Jewish place of worship, she said. Aiello “invited me to a bar mitzvah. It was a very nice experience that she opened her house to me.”

The rabbi said she tells those curious about her past to “adopt those (traditions) that make sense to you — accept all, accept some, but understand that you were once Jewish (in your family ) and we can connect you, connect you again, if you choose.”

Mayor Antonio Muracca hopes at least some Ukrainians will stay. “In a way, these guests have brought more life to our city,” he said. Serrastretta has experienced “a shocking depopulation,” the mayor said. “There are so many old people, few children.”

The city’s population shrank from 4,000 in 2001 to 2,900 in 2020.

Serrastretta has long been called “the city of chairs” because generations of artisans handcrafted furniture from beech wood with seats made from woven reeds. But the demand for cheaper mass-produced furniture decimated the trade.

Father Luigi Iuliano, the parish priest of Serrastretta, invited Aiello to read a psalm at the Easter Vigil services in April. With the rabbi there is no “competition, jealousy”.

“We brought the First Communion children to show them the Torah and the synagogue so we could be aware that our faith is somehow descended from the Hebrew faith,” said Iuliano, a Serrastretta native.

Aiello, who describes herself as Italy’s only female rabbi and runs Calabria’s only synagogue, relies on destination weddings and bat and bar mitzvahs to bolster her synagogue’s finances.

It is cut off from funding from taxpayer donations in Italy. The Italian government recognizes only the Orthodox Jewish communities in Italy, whose official members number about 23,000, almost half the population of Rome and just under 200 in southern Italy.

The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content. US rabbi revives Jewish roots in her family’s Italian town

Dustin Huang

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