16 November 2021
The Beit Chabad stands beside
the traditional synagogues
in the Ghetto of Venice
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.