More than 500 years after the Jews were expelled from Sicily, the nascent Jewish community of Palermo will celebrate its rebirth this week with the formal transfer of ownership of a facility owned by the church and monastery of St. Nicolo Tolentino, which sits atop the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Palermo. The transfer results from a request by the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel and the Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici (ISSE, or Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies).
The handover marks the anniversary of the Jan. 12, 1493 expulsion of the island’s Jews, and will usher in the opening of the first local synagogue in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, since the 15th century. The move comes as growing numbers of people throughout Sicily are rediscovering their Jewish roots.
In a VIP ceremony that is expected to draw hundreds of dignitaries and local residents, the archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, will officially deliver part of the complex to the local Jewish community, which numbers some 60-70 people, represented by the ISSE, which is affiliated with Shavei Israel.
“It is with great joy that we have responded to this request to have a place of study and worship for the Palermo Jewish community,” said Lorefice. “The new synagogue’s location atop the ancient ruins of Palermo’s Great Synagogue makes this historic moment all the more exciting. This transfer is the product of a genuine friendship and ongoing dialogue between the church and Palermo’s Jewish community.”
The church’s historic decision to help revive the Palermo Jewish community comes after more than five years of tireless lobbying by Shavei Israel’s founder and chairman, Michael Freund. Freund’s ultimate vision – to revitalize Palermo’s once-vibrant Jewish community for the first time since 1493 – is now finally being realized.
“Ever since I learned about Sicily’s history, my goal has been to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the first Jewish community in Palermo in more than five centuries,” said Freund. “That is what makes this week’s ceremony so important: we will be establishing together with the ISSE the first synagogue and Jewish house of study in Palermo since the expulsion. I am very moved that it will be located adjacent to where the Great Synagogue of Palermo once stood and I am grateful to the Archbishop of Palermo for having the vision and courage to make such a grand gesture of reconciliation towards the Jewish people.”
The synagogue, which will include a study center, or Beit Midrash, and a Jewish heritage center, will be operated primarily by Shavei Israel, which strengthens ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. It will be overseen by Shavei’s emissary to Sicily, Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, who serves as the rabbi to the local Jewish community. Punturello also serves as a board member of the ISSE.
The history of Jews in Sicily dates back more than two millennia, to the Second Temple period. According to some scholars, the first Jews in Sicily were slaves brought to the island by the Roman legion after the capture of Jerusalem. Despite enduring various periods of legal restrictions and persecutions over the ensuing centuries, the Jews of Sicily flourished and produced many great scholars and rabbis.