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ITALICS How Jewish communities mourn — and live — under lockdown

italicsBy Giovanni Vigna*

On March 16, the former secretary general of the Jewish community of Milan, Michele Sciama, became the first Italian Jew to die of COVID-19. To date, Italy has suffered the most COVID-19 related deaths and is second in the world for infections, after China.

Sciama was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Milan, but his family was forbidden to hold a funeral fitting for the community leader he was.

“Losing a loved one without saying goodbye is really painful. My father died alone and now I can’t even comfort my mother,” Michele’s daughter Stefania told The Times of Israel this week.

Sciama’s son-in-law, Simone Sinai, explained that government regulations that prohibit religious services in places of worship precluded a public memorial service. “Currently only a short farewell ceremony is allowed. It’s very painful, but we had to adapt to the new rules,” said Sinai.

Stefania Sciama and her husband spent the shiva, or traditional seven-day Jewish mourning period, alone and unable to leave the house. Some relatives who live nearby left provisions on their doorstep.

“Unfortunately my mother is currently alone,” Stefania said. “We kept in touch via Skype, and there were friends, relatives and rabbis who comforted us. We prayed at a distance. They were very intense moments of coming together. Last Friday we lit Shabbat candles together with over 400 people connected online.”

The spread of coronavirus is increasing day by day. As of March 25, there are 74,386 confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy, 7,503 dead, and 9,362 healed. Dozens of Jews have contracted the virus, and six have already died.

About 30,000 Jews live in Italy. The Italian Jewish communities have adapted to the increasingly stringent provisions of the government aimed at creating a social distancing between citizens. Although the new rules allow the opening of places of worship, the synagogues have been closed as a precaution.

Stefania Sciama and her husband credit the Jewish community of Milan, now under the leadership of Milo Hasbani, as well as the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni, with guaranteeing that its members receive appropriate care.

“The situation is very serious,” Di Segni told The Times of Israel. “I think foremost of the difficulties faced by the sick, but also of the people forced to stay at home. There is an atmosphere of sadness.”

Di Segni noted that the Jewish community is no stranger to times of emergency and war, “even if we are aware that this pandemic is not an actual war.”

“Now we are listening to the stories of our elders with a different ear,” she said. “It is a listening that generates a shared bond and sense of identity.”

The Union of Italian Jewish Communities is set to launch a nationwide emergency telephone line to provide companionship for those who are isolated, offer psychological support to those who need help, and guarantee medical assistance for issues unrelated to the coronavirus.

“We try to help everyone, and in particular the elderly,” said Di Segni. She said the organization is currently bringing basic necessities to homes and hospitals. Unfortunately, she said, there are many more in need than ever and social workers receive constant requests. To raise funds for Jewish Italian families in need, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Jewish Communities of Rome and Milan have launched a crowdfunding campaign.

“I am worn out,” said Milan Jewish community president Hasbani. “[Fifty-four-year-old] Giorgio Sinigaglia died on Monday. He was very active in the community and had four children. Altogether there are seven or eight sick people.”

The local Jewish community has 5,300 official members and an additional estimated 1,500 unregistered Jews in the area. In Lombardy, the epicenter of the epidemic in Italy, there are also about 500 Israelis working on fixed-term contracts.

The Jewish community has taken steps to contain the virus. “The schools have been closed for several weeks. Our nursing home, which houses 100 patients, is closed. Relatives can’t enter… Fortunately, there were no cases of contagion,” Hasbani said.

While offices and synagogues throughout Milan are closed, the community continues to provide assistance to those in need through a call center and social service.

Rabbi Alberto Somekh teaches at the Jewish high school in Milan and was formerly the chief rabbi of Turin. In an article published on the Jewish community website, he recalled how the Torah describes the Jewish people dealing with epidemics throughout history.

“The masters of the Talmud affirm that the risk to health requires greater attention and behavioral rigor than the normal prohibitions of the Torah,” he said. “I believe that the most significant Talmudic passage for our present situation is the following: ‘If there is a plague in the city, withdraw your steps.’ That is, shut yourself in the house.”

“Whoever leaves the house without reason does not just break a state law. He breaks Jewish law,” Somekh said.

Among other concerns for the Jewish community is access to kosher food, as strict travel restrictions are enforced by the government. The local kosher store has upped its accessibility by allowing customers to order groceries and pick them up at a scheduled time.

Numbering about 15,000, the Jewish community of Rome is the largest in Italy. One of its members has died from complications of the coronavirus. Ss the virus increasingly forces people into isolation, Rome’s Jewish leadership is working to virtually bridge the gaps and bring members together, said community spokesman Daniel Funaro.

The community offers online courses and rabbis’ talks via social media platforms, and has created Facebook groups for people to socialize, Funaro said. The Rome community has also opened a direct telephone line for those in need of support or assistance.

“Several hundred people have turned to us,” Funaro said. “We are bringing groceries to the elderly and trying to give a comforting word to those who are particularly worried.”

In a time when standards dictate staying at home, people have a lot of spare time to read books and expand their knowledge. Rome’s Jewish Community’s cultural wing has promoted on its Facebook page a program in which writers, booksellers, journalists and historians present great works of Jewish literature.
Smaller Jewish communities

Religious leaders from small to medium-sized Jewish communities such as Venice, Florence, Bologna, and Verona are working to strengthen unity and cohesion while their congregations are in isolation.

Trieste, a city in northern Italy bordering Slovenia, houses one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Because the congregation is so small, however, until a few days ago, services were still regularly performed there.

“Enforcing the safety distances and other regulations was not a problem,” wrote chief Rabbi Alexander Meloni in an article published on the “Pagine Ebraiche” Italian Jewish news website.

“Until a few days ago I was thinking about opening the synagogue for the tefillot [Jewish prayers],” said Meloni. “Due to new government regulations aimed at preventing people from going out or moving around, we decided to close the synagogue.”

*The article was published in the Times of Israel on March 26, 2020.