Friday, April 27, 2012

"I'm Italian. Could I be Jewish?"

Why, yes! You could be!

  Current research suggests that, yes, many Italian Americans have Jewish ancestry dating back to the time of the Expulsion from Spain. Through the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC) and Calabria's first active synagogue in over 500 years, Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, you can find out the latest regarding Italians who say, "I've always felt Jewish."

A little background: "Timpone" is the Italian word for "ridge," and is the name given to the ancient Jewish quarter in Nicastro (the historical center of what is now known as Lamezia Terme, in Calabria, in the south of Italy).

Timpone marks a thriving Jewish presence which began in the 1200's and continued through the 1500's when Italian Jews perfected the silk and indigo trade that characterized their special contribution to the local economy.

Rachele Taverna
At the center of the Quarter, the old synagogue still stands, now transformed into a Catholic Church. But not completely. Historians believe that the window above the entrance was once a Magen David (Star of David) and, as was the custom in Inquisition times, three of the six points of the Star were left intact - an affectation that became an architectural standard throughout the south of Italy and a way of identifying those churches that once were synagogues.

Rachele Taverna, now nearly 100 years old, is one of the oldest residents of Timpone. "Si, nel tempo fa, siamo stati ebrei," ("Yes, in the past we were Jews"). Both her surname and given name attest to her Jewish roots.

Come visit the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria located within Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (The Eternal Light of the South) the first active synagogue in Calabria and Sicily in 500 years since Inquisition times. It is in this very synagogue that I officiated at the first ever Bat Mitzvah in Italy (where a girl read directly from the Torah scroll) and the first acknowledged Bar Mitzvah in Sicily in 500 years.

Through the IjCCC, and with the help of a terrific staff, I'm committed to helping Italians and Italian-Americans discover and connect with their Jewish roots. For more information on Italian Jewish Roots and how you could begin your own discovery, visit my website.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jewish Seniors Reach out to Jewish Soldiers

Senior Citizens, some nearly 100 years old, work in tandem with Project M.O.T. to create handmade Rosh HaShanah greetings and Chanukah menorahs, as well as 24 handmade seder plates and hand sewn matzah covers. These items were sent to Jewish soldiers who serve our country in Iraq and Afghanistan so that our heroes could have the opportunity to celebrate the Jewish holidays. “Our Jewish soldiers need you,” was our message as we explained to our ALF residents that their participation would fulfill a real need. 

The Rabbi working with Anchin Resident, Dorothy Union.
As the daughter of an American liberator of the Buchenwald camp, and a former national chaplain of Bugles Across America, I’ve had life experiences related to the work of the military. Through this involvement I was able to contact Project MOT co-directors, Marsha Roseman and Joan Rimmon to ask how our seniors, many of whom are WW II veterans, could help our Jewish men and women in uniform – especially those who currently serve in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

At Roseman and Rimmon’s direction,
the seniors created personalized messages for Rosh HaShanah, “chanukiyot” for the Festival of Lights and, to fulfill a special request by Project MOT, the seniors created hand made seder plates, hand sewn matzah covers and Elijah and Miriam Cups for Jewish soldiers serving in desert outposts.

Vets as Volunteers

Volunteers look on as an Anchin resident designs her cup.
The project’s success was due in large part to the dedication of volunteers who assisted seniors in organizing their materials, decorating and applying glue and writing personalized messages.  And, since the project was directly connected to soldiers, Jewish veterans were invited to assist the residents. 

In addition to the hands-on help that the veterans gave to residents, these brave men and women also engaged residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia in conversation and encouraged them to speak about theirs or their spouse’s military service.     

What Did the Soldiers Say?

The letters from soldiers demonstrated how touched they were to know that seniors, some as old as their great grandparents, took the time to remember them. And our seniors, many of whom are veterans of the Greatest Generation, saw first hand how their efforts contributed to the emotional health of our men and women in uniform.   

The letters we received were heartwarming and demonstrated to our seniors how very valuable their work really was. Take a look at the two we've featured below:

Dear Friends,
I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful Hanukkah package I received this year.  This year for Hanukkah I got to go to Kandahar Air Field (the largest base in the area) for the first night.  It was the first time I had seen other Jewish soldiers since the High Holy Days.  It was obviously nice to see them all again and light the candles. Anyway, thanks again for your help and support.  

I really do appreciate all the thoughts. Take care. 
Sincerely, LT Joel, Kandahar City, Afghanistan

Sarah Judah, soldier in Afghanistan.
Hello! This is Sarah Judah from Afghanistan. I got a care package today and I wanted to say thank you so much! Is there anyway to send my thanks to everyone who donated? I attached a picture I would like to send to the Kobernick House and Anchin Pavilion along with my thanks. A Happy Passover to everyone!

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Mimouna (mee-moo-na) Celebration for the End of Pesach

There are several ways to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and our path to freedom. For those of us celebrating Pesach in the West, one perhaps lesser-known tradition is more commonly practiced in Sephardi synagogues of Mediterranean countries: the synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight (at the end of the eighth night of Pesach), the Torah is taken from the ark, and the Song of Songs is read while congregants dance in the aisles.

It is after this Torah reading that the Mimouna festival begins. The Mimouna celebration honors Rabbi Maimon, the father of Moses Maimonides who was the beloved leader of the Moroccan Jews The celebration begins after nightfall on the last day of Passover. Moroccan and Algerian Jews throw open their homes to visitors, after setting out a lavish spread of traditional holiday cakes and sweetmeats. The table is frequently laid with various symbols of luck and fertility, with an emphasis on the number "5," such as five pieces of gold jewelry or five beans arranged on a leaf of pastry.

In Israel, the Mimouna has become a popular annual happening featuring outdoor
parties, picnics and BBQs. After settling in Israel, Jewish immigrants from North Africa
(Maghrebim) celebrated the Mimouna with their families. In 1966, it was introduced as
a national holiday, and has been adopted by other ethnic groups, mainly in the Mizrahi
sector. The festival has been celebrated by Amsterdam's Moroccan Jewish community for many years, while in 2006, the Moroccan Jewish community of Paris, France, celebrated the holiday publicly for the first time.

Regardless of where one celebrates Mimouna, one of the holiday favorites is Mofletta, a thin crepe made from water, flour, and oil, rolled thinly and fried. Other traditional Mimouna foods include pita bread, cut into pieces and eaten by dipping a piece into honey. The meaning behind this tradition is that the pita and honey will glue the family together and slavery and oppression will never again separate us.

For a special child's take on this festive holiday, scroll down for a brief explanation of Mimouna courtesy of Shalom Sesame. And as you consider your plans for next year’s Pesach celebration, you may wish to include a Mimouna of your own; mark your calendar for April 2, 2013.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Seniors Make Their Own Western Wall

Jewish Housing Council
Sarasota, Florida

Some of you may have participated in this wonderful event, and I wanted to share a bit about what we all accomplished last September. Here’s some background:

The Program

Just in time for Rosh HaShanah 5772, I organized a campus-wide initiative to bring senior residents of Kobernick House, family members and staff together to create a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Residents and their family members appreciated the opportunity that the replica Wall provided: it allowed them to experience symbolically one of the most sacred Jewish sites.

Some of you have asked how was the wall constructed.

Credit: Jesse Smith
The Wall itself was constructed from a collection of nearly 75 shoeboxes, donated in large part by staff. Latex paint formed the base coat, applied by the residents in the Memory Support wing. Other residents were in charge of stippling the latex-covered shoeboxes. Sponge pieces were the tool for this part of the process. Independent living residents took charge with the detailed work, adding gold glitter to the “stones,” representing the golden sunlight that often shines on the original Wall. Kobernick Maintenance staff, Activity Directors and I affixed the shoebox “stones” with aerosol glue to large sheets of the plywood.

And then the moment arrived! As the Kotel took shape against a wall outside of our “shul,” residents and staff added the finishing touches – artificial greens and hanging branches as well as real Florida Spanish moss!


The Impact

When Rosh HaShanah arrived, the Wall was in place. Spotlights illuminated the area and shone off each uniquely crafted stone.  A small table placed near the wall held pens, paper and tape so that anyone could write a prayer or message and literally place it between our “stones.”

As residents and their families arrived for High Holy Day and throughout the High Holy Day cycle, many took time to visit the Wall – to talk together, to reflect and even to point with pride to “my stone – the one I made myself!” 

Women of the Wall members in Jerusalem
By creating a replica Wall, we were able to offer a unique experience and a special place for the local community to share their individual prayers and notes. But these prayers went beyond the replica Wall. After Simchat Torah, the Wall was dismantled and the prayers sent to Jerusalem where members of the organization, “Women of the Wall,” lovingly placed each of the nearly 200 prayers directly into the real Kotel.

Here’s a note from our wonderful contact in Jerusalem, Molly Livingstone:

“I just wanted you to know that the Women of the Wall have placed your notes written by your seniors. We feel honored to have placed these notes in the wall for you and hope you find the pictures as a token of our appreciation…”.

Thank you, Molly. It was a real gift to have Women of the Wall be a part of this collaborative experience!
If you’re interested in reading more about the event, and to see more photos please check out the linked news articles here and on my website.

Chag Sameach, Everyone!

Ancient Synagogue in Calabria Comes to Light

One small section of the Jewish mosaic.
It was a blustery day in early February, when I set out for Bova Marina, an area not far from the big toe of the famous Italian "boot." I was traveling with my Canadian production crew, assembled to put the finishing touches on a documentary film which will feature the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IJCCC) and our nearly ten year effort to bring the history of Jewish Calabria to light. The film  itself  documents a longer international journey to highlight lost and isolated Jews of Calabria and Sicily and to feature individuals who have begun the journey to uncover their Jewish roots. The van was packed with equipment and people, and a hope to accomplish the day's extensive shot list before the sunlight faded.

Enrico Tromba and Rabbi Barbara
The archeological site has come a long way in four years. Overseen by Professor Enrico Tromba, the park, the painstakingly patient digs, and the noteworthy museum of ancient artifacts all represent years of hard work, as little by little, the ruins of an ancient synagogue have been revealed.

The location of such a archeological find is perhaps unexpected. The remnants of a foundation from long ago lie exposed beneath a piece of Italy's famous "autostrada," so that pieces of what was once a giant mosaic menorah were found in the dirt beneath an overpass. At a quick glance, it might look like organized rubble, nothing announces itself as a protected environment; a closer look, however, proves the existence of something not widely recognized in this region of southern Italy: there are Jewish roots here.

The rain threatened to to dampen our day as much of the necessary film footage required outdoor setups. In the end, the rain was kind, and only fell upon the van as we drove from location to location. Once we arrived to our destination, however, we were greeted with a lovely reminder that with the rain comes great beauty.