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Reporter's notebook'We're in the midst of the worst situation since WWII'

At a center of global pandemic, Italy’s Jews contemplate Passover under lockdown

Strict measures barring travel and congregating affect some 60 million people across the country; synagogues in Milan and Venice are closed; Jewish life frozen for now

  • In this photo taken March 12, 2020, an elderly woman wearing a mask waits to enter a deli meat and cold cuts shop in Codogno, Italy. The northern Italian town that recorded Italy’s first coronavirus infection has offered a virtuous example to fellow Italians, now facing an unprecedented nationwide lockdown. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
    In this photo taken March 12, 2020, an elderly woman wearing a mask waits to enter a deli meat and cold cuts shop in Codogno, Italy. The northern Italian town that recorded Italy’s first coronavirus infection has offered a virtuous example to fellow Italians, now facing an unprecedented nationwide lockdown. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
  • A priest walks in front of Rome's ancient Colosseum, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
    A priest walks in front of Rome's ancient Colosseum, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
  • A view of an almost deserted Piazza del Popolo square in Rome, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
    A view of an almost deserted Piazza del Popolo square in Rome, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
  • The Spanish Synagogue in Venice. (Courtesy)
    The Spanish Synagogue in Venice. (Courtesy)
  • A man wearing a mask rides a scooter in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020 (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
    A man wearing a mask rides a scooter in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020 (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MANTUA — Italy is on lockdown. The streets are deserted and shops’ shutters are lowered. Travel is limited to emergencies only, and people are asked to remain in their homes. To stem the progress of the rapidly spreading coronavirus global pandemic, all business will be closed until March 25, except for grocery stores and pharmacies.

No quarter is exempt from the new directives and in recent days, the over 30,000-strong Italian Jewish community spent the holiday of Purim at home, bombarded by the increasingly dramatic news reports that arrived, one after the other. Many synagogues have closed to avoid large gatherings.

Drastic new provisions, announced live on Facebook on Wednesday by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, follow two previous orders issued on Saturday night and Monday to limit the exponential increase in infections and deaths. The crisis is also devastating the economy; the premier has allocated 25 billion euros ($28 billion) in an effort to help businesses stay afloat.

In Italy, the epicenter of the spread of the coronavirus is the northern region of Lombardy, one of the most important industrial areas in Europe. The whole country is now affected by the epidemic, which is spreading rapidly. On Thursday there were 15,113 confirmed infections and 1,016 dead, many of whom were elderly; 1,258 people had recovered. Italy overtook South Korea, becoming the second most affected nation in the world after China.

On the night between March 7 and 8, Conte signed a first order calling for drastic measures to be taken in the so-called “red zones” of Lombardy and 14 other provinces. The following day it was extended to the rest of the country.

Police officers and soldiers check passengers leaving from Milan main train station, Italy, March 9, 2020 (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

Through at least April 3, pubs, discos and other entertainment venues are closed, as are gyms and swimming pools, museums and cultural sites, schools and universities, and shops and restaurants.

The measures are intended to prevent overloading the public health system, which in Lombardy is already at risk of collapse. Intensive care units are experiencing difficulty as they continue to operate at maximum capacity.

Synagogues, churches and other places of worship are allowed to remain open under the new regulations, but large gatherings must still be avoided. Visitors are also required to maintain a distance of a least one meter from each other. Large civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals, have been suspended.

Rome

Expressing solidarity with Italy’s Jewish communities, president of the Jewish Agency for Israel Isaac Herzog and Sam Grundwerg, president of Keren Hayesod,  spoke this week with Jewish leaders from Rome and Milan, who described the challenges and threats they are facing and their immediate needs.

Illustrative: Head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog attends a memorial service for the victims who were killed in shooting attack at Pittsburgh at a synagogue in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

“We have set up a special team to immediately analyze their most urgent needs, and together with Keren Hayesod we will work to help the communities as quickly as possible,” Herzog said in a statement. “I urge our parallel Jewish organizations and communities worldwide to mobilize, given the extent of the need. Schools, kindergartens, security, assistance for Holocaust survivors and other vulnerable people at risk, as well as the preservation of synagogues and cemeteries are just some of the challenges these communities are facing.”

The Jewish community of Rome has roughly 15,000 members, making it the largest in Italy.

We know there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how long the tunnel is

“We are a proud and ancient community in the midst of the worst situation we have faced since World War II,” community president Ruth Dureghello said. “We are in a state of complete uncertainty. We are trying to stabilize the situation but there is tremendous anxiety here about the danger of a complete collapse. General morale is very low. We know there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how long the tunnel is.”

Illustrative: Milan resident Ruben Golran had to curtail his bar mitzvah celebration because of the coronavirus. (Courtesy of the Golran family via JTA)

Milan

Over 8,000 Jews live in Milan, the capital of Lombardy. There are 15 synagogues, which are currently closed as a precaution. The rabbinic office and Jewish community center — the largest after Rome — are similarly closed. Employees are working remotely.

“Our schools and nursing homes have been shut for three weeks,” said Milo Hasbani, a Milan community leader. “We are organizing various support channels to help community members, especially elderly people who are in quarantine and can’t go food shopping. We are setting up distance learning for the children, investing in disinfectants and preparing the community’s security team for any scenario.”

The government’s exceptional measures also had an impact on celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which took place on March 9 and 10.

To help those who have not been able to reach the synagogue, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, in cooperation with the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, offered a livestream reading of the Book of Esther, traditionally read each year.

Milan chief rabbi and president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Italy, Rabbi Alfonso Arbib. (Courtesy)

Milan’s chief rabbi and president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Italy, Alfonso Arbib, cautioned community members to take extra care during observance of the holiday.

“In this particular situation, Purim must be observed while being very careful to respect the limits imposed by the government order. In addition to the duty to observe these rules as Italian citizens, there is a [religious] duty to preserve our health and that of others,” Arbib said in a statement ahead of Purim.

Milanese Jews have had to adjust to the emergency. “The mitzvah of sending gifts of food to friends can be solved by avoiding direct contact,” Arbib said, adding that the holiday meal should be limited to family. “Gifts to the poor can be sent through other people or through bank payments to associations that help getting them to people in need,” he said.

Mantua

At the far end of Lombardy, not far from Milan, is Mantua, a small city with a local Jewish community of 60 people, most of them elderly.

“It wasn’t always like this. In the 19th century there were more than 2,000 Jews,” said Emanuele Colorni, Jewish community president. “Now the Norsa synagogue, the only one in the city, is frequented by very few people, and only on the main holidays. Unfortunately, community activities are now canceled due to the coronavirus epidemic.”

Aldo Norsa (left) and Emanuele Colorni. (Courtesy)

Lea Calvo Platero, councilor of the Jewish community of Mantua, is a freelance journalist who works for a communications agency in Milan.

“Fortunately, I can manage to work from home,” Platero said. “I try to avoid meetings, which are instead carried out via Skype.”

Asked how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting religious behavior and habits, Platero said that her family decided to celebrate the Purim holiday at home.

“We will do the same thing for Passover,” she said, “which we usually spend with others. On the first evening we generally have dinner with friends, but this year it will not be possible. Many members of our community are elderly. We must protect them because they are the people who are most exposed to the risks related to coronavirus.”

The Jewish community of Mantua has been virtually frozen for two weeks.

We are living with uncertainty

“We have suspended religious services,” said councilor Aldo Norsa. “We usually celebrate Shabbat and the most important holidays. We are living with uncertainty, perhaps we will also be forced to cancel [Passover] celebrations in April.”

Venice

The Jewish community of Venice has also reorganized its activity.

The Spanish Synagogue in Venice. (Courtesy)

“For this month, all cultural programming has been canceled,” said Venice community spokesman Paolo Navarro Dina. “Initially we had decided to keep the Spanish synagogue in the ancient ghetto open because it is larger than the other places of worship, but then we changed our mind. All religious functions are now suspended. Business meetings will take place over the phone.”

A group of some young people, coordinated by the Venetian religious leaders, will run errands and bring basic necessities to the elderly.

Andrea Mevorach is a Venetian entrepreneur who works in real estate and food service.

The empty parking lot of a Mantua shopping mall, March 10, 2020. (Giovanni Vigna/Times of Israel)

“I live in the historic center of Venice but I work in the area of ​​Marghera harbor on dry land, where I also manage a restaurant,” said businessman Mevorach. “The situation is terrible, but Venetians have an exceptional capacity to recover. After the record high water of November, the city started back up again. Now it is much worse — Venice is deserted, the shops have had 100 percent losses.”

Now Mevorach’s restaurant is closed, but he said the business will continue with home deliveries to companies in Marghera and bringing free meals to the elderly who cannot leave their homes.

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