16 November 2021

The Beit Chabad stands beside
the traditional synagogues
in the Ghetto of Venice

The Beit Chabad, or the Chabad House is a small, shop-front shul or synagogue in the Ghetto Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Venice is a city that is rich in Jewish history: Jews have lived there since the Middle Ages; the old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido was founded in the 1300s; the first printing of holy books, such as two of Judaism’s most important, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch, took place in Venice.

The ghetto in Venice dates from 1516, when it became the first place in Europe designated as an enclosed area of enforced Jewish segregation. At its height, about 5,000 Jews were living in the Ghetto in the 17th century. But, today, the Jewish community in Venice counts fewer than 450 people, and only a handful of Jews live in the Ghetto itself.

The Chief Rabbi of Venice, Rabbi Scialom Bahbout, has previously served as the chief rabbi of Naples and of Bologna before coming to Venice in 2014. He was born in Tripoli in Libya, and he succeeded the previous Chief Rabbi, Elia Richetti (1950-2021), who died earlier this year (4 April 2021) at the age of 71.

The chief rabbi’s office is above the Scuola Spagnola, or Spanish Synagogue, one of the five surviving, historic synagogues in Venice. It was built in 1580 by Sephardic Jews who sought refuge in Venice after being expelled from Spain. Services continue to be held regularly in the Spanish Synagogue.

The ghetto in Venice, dating from 1516, was the first segregated Jewish ghetto in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the past, I have visited and written about the five surviving, working historic synagogues in Venice: the Scuola Spagnola (Spanish Synagogue), Scuola Italiana, Scuola Levantina, Scuola Canton, and the Scuola Grande Tedesca. I have visited other Jewish foundations in the Ghetto, including the Jewish Museum of Venice, shops, cafés and restaurants, and last week I also visited the old and new Jewish cemeteries on the Lido of Venice.

But last week, for the first time, I also noticed a sixth Jewish house of prayer in the Ghetto Square – the Beit Chabad, or the Chabad House, a small, shop-front shul or synagogue, and the offices of the Chabad of Venice.

It was a bright, sunny, late autumn afternoon and children were playing football in the square of the Ghetto. All were wearing kippot, and the tzitzit or fringes of their prayer shawls dangled visible below their jackets and jumpers.

In the quiet of the off-season early afternoon, a few tourists were wandering around aimlessly in the Ghetto Square. A few cafés were open, and one or two shops were open too. But the Jewish Museum of Venice has been closed temporarily for the past two weeks.

Glass figures from Murno in ashop window in the Ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Gam-Gam, the Chabad-run restaurant where I have eaten in the past, was closed too, although the lights were on. Instead, two of us then had lunch in the Ghetto at Mojer, close to the Scuola Spagnola and the Scuola Levantina, at tables beside family groups of tourists talking about their walking tours of the ghetto and its synagogues.

The Chabad of Venice is celebrating 30 years of meeting and greeting tourists from all over the world who visit the Ghetto. The Beit Chabad says it has been a beacon of light to many Jews visiting Venice over the last three decades, and their lives have been touched by a taste of Shabbat, a Yom Kippur experience, or an unexpected conversation.

Understandably, relationships between Chabad and the traditional, local, resident Jewish community have been rocky over those past three years, with local Jews accusing Chabad of trying to usurp the community’s position and undermine its activities.

Rabbi Rami Banin, who has led the Chabad presence in Venice for many years, recently told an interviewer, ‘Chabad understood before anyone else that Jewish Venice is not just a local place but an international one.’ A truce or a modus vivendi is now in place between the old and the new communities.

Shops selling kosher food bring new ingedients to Jewish life in the Ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Beit Chabad synagogue offers tourists and Venetians morning, afternoon and evening services each day. The Chabad House claims it is seeing tremendous growth in participation as new young Jewish families make their home in Venice. It also reaches out to Jews living throughout the Veneto area, including Padova, Verona, Treviso and Vicenza, where there are two US army bases.

As well as the Chabad House, other ingredients of Jewish life are making an active daily Jewish lifestyle possible, such as kosher food and special event catering from Gam-Gam, the popular Kosher restaurant, which offers Shabbat and High Holiday hospitality, including free Friday-night meals for tourists. Sometimes, hundreds have been present and spill out onto the street and the canal front, singing and dancing.

Other programmes include art exhibitions featuring Venetian and other Jewish artists, plans for a state-of-the-art mikveh, and a focus on Jewish education, with private tutoring and holiday events and activities for children.

Before the pandemic outbreak, 300,000 Jewish tourists were visiting Venice each year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Until the pandemic outbreak, 300,000 Jewish tourists were visiting Venice each year, and the majority of them experienced Judaism through one of these outreach programmes. For a few, it may even have been their first Jewish experience.

The Yeshiva or Jewish Academy of Venice on the east side of the Ghetto Square is open from 7:30 a.m. to midnight. All guests, tourists, and visitors and visitors are welcomed, regardless of Jewish background, and are encouraged to join the students for one-on-one Torah study sessions or to study subjects ranging from the Aleph Bet to Chasidic Philosophy.

The Yeshiva has more than 140 graduates who are now serving as rabbis in communities all over the world, including Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Israel, Belgium, France, New York, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.

The Chabad of Venice is celebrating 30 years of meeting and greeting tourists who visit the Ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
171, Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, Beaumaris

The mediaeval Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, the 14th century parish church in Beaumaris on the Island of Anglesey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This looks like a busy day, with a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Church of Ireland expected to last for most of the morning.

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme on this prayer diary for the rest of this week is cathedrals and churches in Wales. As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this morning, my photographs today (16 November 2021) are of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, the 14th century parish church in Beaumaris.

Inside the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas in Beaumaris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, the parish church in Beaumaris on the Island of Anglesey, is a Grade I listed building, and was first built ca 1330 to serve the newly-founded town.

The parish church is in the heart of the mediaeval town, in a large churchyard with Church Street to the east and Steeple Lane to the west. It was built to serve the burgesses of the walled town soon after Beaumaris Castle was built.

Parts of the church were built at different times: the oldest parts are the nave and aisles, and the west tower, all of which date to the 14th century, while the chancel was rebuilt around 1500 in Perpendicular style. The west tower is of four stages, with a battlemented parapet. The upper section was remodelled in the early 19th century. The north vestry and south porch are probably 19th century. The exterior is mainly Perpendicular.

Inside the south porch, the stone tomb of Princess Joan of Wales (Princess Siwan) is much older than the church itself. Princess Joan was an illegitimate daughter of King John of England, and in the late 12th century, when she was still only 15 – some accounts say she was only 12 – she was married to Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or Llywelyn the Great, then Prince of Wales.

At first it was a successful marriage, by all accounts. But in 1230 she was found in bed with a Norman knight, William de Braose. Llewelyn had William hanged, and Joan was exiled for a year at Garth Celyn. Llewelyn eventually forgave her, and Joan returned to court in 1231.

When she died in February 1237, Joan was buried at the Franciscan Friary that her husband had founded in Llanfaes, just north of Beaumaris and within sight of his palace at Abergwyngregyn.

However, when Llewelyn died three years later in 1240, he was not buried with Joan. Instead, he was buried at Aberconwy Abbey, to which he had retired during the last few years of his life.

At the Reformation and the dissolution of the monastic houses, the Friary at Llanfaes was suppressed in 1537. For years, Joan’s tomb was lost. Centuries later, it was found in Beaumaris, being used as a water trough for horses. It was rescued and moved into the parish church in Beaumaris.

The slab is elaborately decorated with a floriate design. Her hands are drawn together, palms outwards, in a position of prayer. At her feet is a wyvern, a mythical mediaeval heraldic bird of prey, twisting to bite its tail.

At the west end of the north aisle is the impressive alabaster altar tomb of William Bulkeley, who died in 1490, and his wife Elin, daughter of Gwilym ap Gruffydd of Penrhyn. The tomb is made of Midlands alabaster, probably from the area around Derby and Nottingham, and the alabaster figures of William and Elin are side-by-side. William is wearing a light helmet, and his feet are resting on an heraldic lion. Around its base, the tomb is decorated with figures representing bishops and saints, including Saint Christopher.

William Bulkeley was deputy constable of Beaumaris Castle and the ancestor of Archbishop Lancelot Bulkeley of Dublin and the Bulkeley family of Old Bawn House near Tallaght.

The church also has a unique collection of misericords dating from the late 15th and early 16th century, although eight are replacements made in 1902. These carved misericords decorate the undersides of the seats in the choir stalls. Many of the misericords carry a moral message, but others simply depict scenes from daily life.

The faces of the carvings are finely detailed and are the work of skilled craftsmen. It is likely the old misericords came from the friary at Llanfaes when it was dissolved. They include a bearded pope, a woman balancing two pints on her head, a woman in a crown with a wimple and a hood, a woman with a crown of roses on her head and another of two working women.

There is an amusing carving of a woman with a pair of tankards filled with ale balanced on her head. Perhaps she was a real person who brought drinks to the woodcarvers as they worked.

The East Window by Clayton and Bell … note the Crucified Christ has no beard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church also has a large collection of interesting stained-glass windows.

The original East Window of mediaeval glass was destroyed by the Puritans during the Cromwellian era in the mid-17th century. The East Window, by Clayton and Bell, commemorates Richard Gerard Wellesley Williams-Bulkeley, killed in 1918 during World War I. An interesting detail in this Crucifixion scene is that Christ has no beard.

The window in the east wall of the south aisle, depicting the Adoration of the Christ Child by the Shepherds, with Saint David and Saint Nicholas on each side, is by Charles Eamer Kempe (1904).

The three-light window in the south wall of the chancel shows the Virgin and Child with Archangels and Magi. This window (1923) is the work Kempe’s pupil, John CN Bewsey. In the top portion of the window, the three panels show the Virgin Mary standing with the Christ Child close to her bosom, and the Archangel Gabriel and the Archangel Michael; the lower portion depicts the Virgin Mary sitting or enthroned, with the Christ Child on her lap and the Wise Men presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (see Matthew 2: 11). Madonna.

Many of the other furnishings, including the font and pews, date from a major restoration carried out in 1902. Members of the Bulkeley family are commemorated in the chancel and the sanctuary, including the last Viscount Bulkeley, a generous benefactor of the church, who died in 1822.

The window depicting the Adoration of the Christ Child by the Shepherds, with Saint David and Saint Nicholas on each side, is by Charles Eamer Kempe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 19: 1-10 (NRSVA):

1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

The three-light window showing the Virgin and Child with the Archangels and the Magi (1923) by John CN Bewsey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (16 November 2021, International Day of Tolerance) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for a more tolerant world, in which difference is celebrated and experience is valued.

The stone tomb of Princess Joan of Wales inside the south porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The alabaster altar tomb of William and Elin Bulkeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The misericords in Beaumaris date from the late 15th and early 16th century (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)