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

  • Rabbi Barbara Aiello walks the courtyard of her "Ner Tamid del Sud" (The Eternal Light of the South) synagogue and home in Serrastretta, southern Italy, Friday, July 8, 2022. From a rustic, tiny synagogue she fashioned from her family's ancestral home in this mountain village, American rabbi Aiello is keeping a promise made to her Italian-born father: to reconnect people in this southern region of Calabria to their Jewish roots, links nearly severed five centuries ago when the Inquisition forced Jews to convert to Christianity. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

From a rustic, tiny synagogue she fashioned from her family’s ancestral home in this mountain village, an American rabbi is keeping a promise made to her Italian-born father: reconnect people in this southern region of Calabria to their Jewish roots, links nearly severed five centuries ago when the Inquisition forced Jews to convert to Christianity.

In the process, Rabbi Barbara Aiello is also helping to revive Serrastretta, one of many small southern towns struggling with dwindling population, as young people leave in droves to find work and where each year deaths far outnumber births.

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Besides the chatter of visitors who come to her synagogue, curious to learn about Judaism in predominantly Catholic Italy, the laughter of newly arrived children resounds in the town. This spring, the rabbi helped bring Ukrainian refugees, including some with Jewish roots, to live here for now, and — Serrastretta’s mayor hopes — maybe permanently.

On a small wooden table near the synagogue’s entrance sits a yellowed family portrait. In the photograph, is 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 that religious coming-of-age ritual could take place, the young Aiello left with his family for the United States in 1923.

His daughter, Barbara, would be born in Pittsburgh and ordained a rabbi at the Rabbinical Seminary International in New York at age 51. Her synagogue is a recognized affiliate of the Reconstructionist movement, a small branch of American Judaism.

Before studying to become a rabbi, Aiello taught special needs children for many years, creating a puppet show to help teach kids about tolerance. After being ordained, she served at a synagogue in Florida for a few years before moving to Italy, where she first worked as a rabbi in Milan from 2004-2005. Then she realized her passion in serving as a rabbi in her late father’s native town.

When visitors arrive from abroad for ceremonies at her synagogue, Rabbi Aiello, who is 74, shows them the house in what had been the Jewish quarter in the nearby city of Lamezia Terme, where her father had been learning about his Jewish faith.

She points out a plaque which reads: “In this quarter was active an industrious community” of Jews from the 13th till the 16th centuries.

One recent summer evening, as Aiello, who wears a yarmulke and necklace with a small Star of David, walked by en route to the ancient neighborhood, a local resident, Emilio Fulvo, 73, leaped up from a bench to greet her. When he was 15, Fulvo recounted, genealogical research discovered that his family has Jewish roots.

Learning about his background “made me feel free,” Fulvo said. “I knew something was missing” while raised 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 to publicly renounce their Judaism,” the rabbi said.

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

The remoteness of many villages in Calabria, coupled with Italians’ tendencies to live in the same places for generations and the strength of oral traditions, helped keep alive what Roque Pugliese, a Jew in Calabria, calls the “spark of Judaism” even among those who don’t realize they have Jewish heritage.

A physician who emigrated from Argentina, Pugliese recalled once hearing residents of a care home in Calabria sing an ancient song about Passover, softly, as if afraid to be overheard.

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

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