Italian Jews keep sense of community despite coronavirus lockdown

Online religious study lessons, video-conference meals and cocktails helping Italian Jews keep sense of community despite coronavirus lockdown

President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni (photo credit: GIOVANNI MONTENERO)
President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni
(photo credit: GIOVANNI MONTENERO)
The Jewish community in Italy, the country with the worst outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic after China, is doing its utmost to support its members religiously, physically and spiritually, the head of the country’s umbrella Jewish organization has said.
With some 36,000 confirmed cases and 3,000 deaths from the viral scourge as of Thursday, Italy has been on total lockdown for the last two weeks with people told to stay indoors and allowed out only for essential purposes. Its hospitals have become overwhelmed with patients suffering from Covid-19 disease. 
Amid this is the Jewish community of Italy, some 25,000 people in 21 locations, who are dealing with the pandemic and the unique challenges it presents to Jewish life. 
Noemi Di Segni, president of the umbrella Jewish community organization the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, told The Jerusalem Post this week the Jewish community was facing severe challenges on multiple fronts. 
So far, only six Italian Jews have tested positive for coronavirus, although one, former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan, Michele Sciama, 78, died earlier this week from the disease. 
But like everyone else, Italian Jews are largely confined to their homes and bearing the burden of all that entails. 
“People are feeling like they need community, and it is a Jewish value to ensure people feel that they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger group, a community that is there to provide them with institutional support,” Di Segni told the Post. 
“People are challenged,” she said. “They are suffering just to be at home. But they are managing, and we are trying to help with various online activities and support services.” 
Jewish life, which is based around community, has naturally been deeply affected. 
All synagogues have been closed down and all communal prayer services cancelled. The only option is for people to pray at home. 
It has also become extremely difficult to conduct funerals with a minyan [quorum] of 10 Jewish men for those who have died of causes other than coronavirus, since there is a general quota of 12 people for all funerals at present. 
When close female relatives of the deceased are included in the funeral ceremony, it often means a minyan cannot be made to recite mourner’s kaddish.
The funeral services have to be conducted very rapidly. 
Immersion by women in a mikveh ritual bath, required by Jewish law every month, has also become very difficult given the hygiene challenges inherent in running public mikvaot during a pandemic. 
Di Segni said the community has been able to organize limited mikveh services in coordination with the relevant authorities. 
Brit milah religious circumcision ceremonies have been allowed to take place but with a minimal number of attendees to a ceremony that is usually a highly festive occasion attended by many friends and family members of the parents. 
Another challenge the Italian Jewish community is dealing with is the upcoming Passover holiday.
Di Segni said many Italian Jews, especially those living in smaller communities outside of Rome and Milan, almost always attend communal Passover seders and do not know how to conduct the elaborate and complex evening ceremony themselves. 
People also need to be able to get hold of matzah, wine and other kosher-for-Passover food, which given the current nationwide lockdown is extremely difficult. 
The Union of Italian Jewish Communities has put together an online toolkit to help people conduct a seder, including a printable Passover Haggada that is translated and transliterated for those who cannot read Hebrew. 
The union is also working to ensure that all essential Passover food items are imported into the country and is setting up distribution centers and home deliveries. 
The union is also helping community members deal with the crisis. 
It has a group of doctors who are available to give people immediate medical advice should they need it, and it has organized a team of volunteers, including rabbis in the community, to call elderly members of the community to provide them with some company over the phone.
The union is also helping provide people with kosher food if they cannot reach kosher shops, while rabbis are providing online religious study lessons, cultural events and activities for children cooped up in their homes all day. 
“The atmosphere among the Jewish community is that this is bigger than us,” Di Segni said.
“But people are anxious because they don’t know when this crisis will end,” she said, adding that members of the community were increasingly worried about their financial situation with people unable to work and businesses shuttered. 
“People are scared and stressed [because of the lockdown],” Di Segni said. “But on the other hand, people are trying to react as lightly as possible to these events. 
“They are sharing songs, reaching out to neighbors, eating and having cocktails together in online video conferences and speaking to each other regularly, and we are trying to help them feel like they are living together with a community as much as possible. 
“We are living day by day and just dealing with what needs to be done in the moment,” Di Segni said.