The Roman Catholic Church in Palermo is ceding to Jewish ownership the use of part of a church and monastery complex built atop the ruins of a medieval synagogue.
The move is being viewed as a gesture of reconciliation more than 500 years after the expulsion of Jews from Sicily.
The church will finance renovations in the space to create a new
synagogue and Jewish heritage center for the several dozen Jews who now
live in the city.
The donated space is the Oratory of Santa Maria del Sabato, in the
lower part of the building under the church complex of San Nicola da
Tolentino, Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello told JTA.
Punturello is the emissary to Sicily of Shavei Israel, an
organization that focuses on outreach to Jews who have lost connection
to their Jewish roots and identity, including “bnei anusim,” or the
descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism under Spanish rule.
Based in Israel, he serves as Palermo’s rabbi, traveling once a month
to the city.
The handover will take place during a conference on Jan. 12 — the
anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Sicily by Spanish rulers in
Shavei Israel’s founder and chair, Michael Freund, who played a
key role in arranging the donation of the space, will be among the
Palermo’s archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, is transferring ownership of
the space under the terms of the Italian “comodato d’uso gratuito,” an
arrangement comparable to a free leasehold. There is no formal Jewish
community in Palermo; the owners of the space will be a local cultural
and educational organization, the Sicilian Institute of Jewish
Studies-the Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici, or ISSE, which is
affiliated with Shavei Israel.
Punturello, who serves on the board of the ISSE, said Shavei Israel,
which works in partnership with the Jewish umbrella Union of Italian
Jewish Communities, or UCEI, and the Jewish community in Naples, will
mainly be responsible for the new center’s operations, in large part due
to his roles as Palermo’s rabbi and Shavei Israel emissary.