By Saul Meghnagi and Tobia Zevi
The Italian Jewish community now numbers just over 23,000 people based in twenty-one communities. Most communities are small or miniscule in number, except for Rome (approx. 13,000) and Milan (approx. 6,000). It is an ancient people who trace their origin back to the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. In recent decades it has been enriched with Jews coming from northern Africa and other areas of the Mediterranean. It has a prevalently Orthodox tradition characterized by specific historical circumstances and special customs that are uniquely Italian and place the community outside of the traditional Ashkenazi / Sephardi breakdown within world Jewry.
From a social and economic standpoint, the communities are generally characterized by a medium-high level of education and income. But there are also pockets of poverty deriving historically from centuries of forced confinement to ghettoes – the first of which was created in Venice in the early sixteenth century – as well as prohibition from practicing many professions. For example, in the Roman ghetto, the largest and longest lasting (from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century), Jews were only allowed to sell used articles or lend money at interest.
After emancipation, the Italian Jewish communities took an active role in the civil and cultural construction of the nation. Nevertheless, in 1938 they found themselves confronted by the Race Laws issued by the Fascist regime and, in 1943, by the beginning of deportations that would decimate their leadership. After the war, the Jewish communities gradually recovered some degree of vivacity and a determination to safeguard their existence not only in large cities but also in smaller towns.
Recent decades have been characterized by a consolidation of Jewish community institutions. Many professionals are prominent in public life and Jewish visibility has been further promoted by the creation of a Museum of Italian Hebraism and serious planning for a proposed National Holocaust Museum.
However, events in Italy and in the rest of Europe in recent years have raised new concern among Jews about their future. Some have begun to doubt – partially due to the anti-Semitic attacks in France – whether they can remain in their country of origin.
Significant immigration flows, especially from Muslim countries, are the source of new uncertainties. The traditional openness and hospitality of the Jews towards outsiders is now balanced by the fear that the future may bring acts of hostility if not actually anti-Semitism. The situation in Italy does not appear to be as worrisome as that in France, but it is compounded by other phenomena presenting a complex array of issues, especially for young people.
In particular, a lasting economic crisis is having a significant impact on the structure of the economy and has caused a drastic decrease in the rate of participation in the employment market. This phenomenon is destined to grow in coming years, partially as the result of technological innovation. Jewish communities, and especially young Jews, are affected by one of the most serious consequences: lack of employment. Young Jews, like others in their age group, are increasingly faced with the need to carefully assess their options for remaining in Italy or emigrating abroad.
This situation affects both the number and the degree of active participation of young people in Jewish cultural activities, which, in most cases, are not perceived as being of the highest priority compared with the need to succeed in a highly competitive employment market.
This challenge for the community lies behind the founding, some five years ago, of the Hans Jonas Jewish Cultural Association by a group of young people in their twenties. The Association seeks to train new young lay and professional leaders for the Jewish communities via a Master’s program and a series of encounters, conferences and publications.
In its first four years, the Master’s program has involved approximately eighty young people, carried out and published a national research project on young Italian Jews, which has been translated into English, held a number of conferences, and created a series of publications.
Initially supported by private funds, more recently it has received funding from the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Pincus Fund for a project to consolidate the work of previous years. Two more cohorts of the Master’s program, will be focused on “Religioni e Stato di diritto” [Religions and the Rule of Law], the production of online teaching materials on various aspects of the Jewish identity by twentieth-century scholars, and the creation of a conference entitled “Educazione all’ebraismo” [Education in Jewishness].
This project is at the halfway stage. It highlights how our communities, and especially young adults, must take part in processes of change, and propose, based on their own experience, ways of building identity which is in tune with our times. Young people want to have a stronger presence in the broader society in combating distorted interpretations, anti-Jewish prejudice, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and also in making a contribution to society as a whole, especially at a time when the influx of different peoples and cultures is growing and impacting on national cultural identity. Furthermore, there is determination on the part of young adult leaders to help overcome the high level of conflict among different groups within our communities, and to promote the fact that there are different ways of conceiving of Jewishness in contemporary Italy.
In its four years to date, the Master’s program has graduated some sixty young adults, who now form a national network – with a real connection through social media, in spite of youngsters work movement to different Italian and European cities – and a core group for potential future community lay and professional leadership. The project aims are to engage young adults, to strengthen their bonds with Jewish culture and heritage, and to encourage development of future leaders for Italian Jewish communities.
Some graduates are already actively involved. For example, Melissa is now the Community Affairs Coordinator of CEJI, A Jewish Contribution for an Inclusive Europe; Alessandra become one of the communication officers at the European Council of Jewish Communities; Valeria is now working at the Keren Kayemet in Italy, Margherita sits on the Board of the Jewish Community in Milan. Many more have become involved in activities and projects of community institutions. Within the Board members of the Hans Jonas Association, Simone became the General Secretary of the European Council of Jewish Community, Gad is the coordinator of the TAGLIT program in Italy.
The current project will add 25 young adults to this number. The program offers both hope for the future and a challenge to the establishment community to open its doors and its thinking to new ideas and energy. The project aims to engage young adults in the future of their community, to strengthen their bonds with Jewish culture and heritage, and to encourage development of future leaders able to overcome the present difficulties which face all European Jewish communities today. The Masters curriculum includes Israel, Zionism and Jewish History as main topics together with practical tools for developing and implementing communication and cultural strategies that cam allow Jewish leaders to overcome internal conflicts and find ways to anticipate the future and find creative ways for a development of their communities.
The Association as a whole is engaged in an effort to be part of the main debate on the future of Jews in Europe. The project began with a general question about Jewish identity today. With time, this question has become more complicated, and new leaders have to deal with significant aspects of a changing society and a changing dynamics between the whole society and the Jews in Europe.
Europe today has to deal with an immigration flow in all its complexity. The Jewish communities, which themselves have absorbed immigrant population from, for example, Libya, can offer some wisdom to society about how to integrate foreigners into local society without forcing them to abandon their identity and practices of origin. The Jews are an important example and can be leaders in reaching this goal. At the same time Jews are obliged to defend themselves from a growing antisemitism that might come also from migrants. They have to face this contradiction.
The Hans Jonas Association will be part of the analysis and the national debate on this issue. It will go forward with the training activities promoting, at the same time, serious discussions among the Italian Jewish communities, taking place locally as well as in Israel and France. The underlying aim is to give young people a clear idea of the processes, choices, and possible options for future action facing the contemporary Italian Jewish community, and promote the great need for the personal engagement of the next generation.
The Hans Jonas Association and the Pincus project will be presented in August 2016 at the international meeting of the EUJS, European Union of Jewish Students, that will take place in Rome. Nearly four hundred youngster from all over Europe will meet for a Summer School and the Association has been requested to support and give advice for the open debate on our future.