I am writing this from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. My wife and I are on our way home to the US after two great weeks in Italy.
I haven’t been away for this long since 1976, when I was a Birmingham News reporter and journeyed to Israel for the first time. I
Like my Israel trip almost 40 years ago, my Italy trip was fun, fascinating, illuminating, tiring, and, especially, filled with too much eating. I know that many readers have been to this historic and colorful country themselves and can relate to what I’m saying.
There were many highlights but for me those that loom dealt with Jewish life in Italy, a 2000-year-old saga which has been marked by the good, the bad and the ugly.
I didn’t know, for example, that Julius Caesar was good for the Jews and that Rome’s Jewish community widely mourned his passing. I did know, and had read about, the degradation and oppression of the Jews over the centuries and was particularly taken by site visits that brought these difficult chapters in Jewish history to life.
I may have gone away but the challenges facing the Birmingham Jewish Federation, where I am executive director, have not. Even in just the two weeks I’ve been gone, major global challenges have intensified, national needs have deepened and the fundraising pressures facing us have grown. Far from shrinking from them, however, I find myself re-energized, ready to help lead our Federation forward.
Why is that? If I had to sum it up in a single reason, it would be the tour my wife and I had of what once was the Jewish ghetto of Rome. Led by a passionate and knowledgable young Jewish woman, Sara Pavoncello, whose family has been in Rome since the 1400s, I was deeply moved by the determination and sacrifices Sara’s family and other Roman Jewish families made over the centuries to stay Jewish and cling to their Judaism.
During the more difficult times of the past, the pressure and coercion from the Catholic Church to convert was overwhelming. Jews were forced to endure humiliations, restraints and decrepit conditions — all of which they could have escaped from forever simply by converting to Christianity.
Yet only a fraction of the Jewish community succumbed. And what was once an oppressive ghetto, today is a lively area with Jewish institutions, shops and restaurants that reflect a vibrant and cohesive Jewish community.
“Why did so few people convert?” I asked Sara as we were walking. I already knew the answer but wanted to hear what this 27-year-old Jewish woman’s response would be.
She paused for a minute. It wasn’t because she needed the time to come up with the answer. That was clear from the intensity in her face. It was because she wanted to be sure she phrased it correctly in English.
“The answer,” she said, “is because they were Jews. That was more important to them than the problems they faced. They would have never given up being Jewish for anything.” And then she added as she reflected on her own life, “Neither would I.”
It is this conversation that remains at the forefront of my mind as my plane makes its way across the ocean. Every Jew who is alive today, because of our unique history, has been bequeathed something sacred — a precious and holy legacy of faith, traditions, rituals and peoplehood.
Those Jews of Rome who refused to convert affirmed this, as have Jews in every part of the world and in every era, no matter how daunting and dangerous their conditions: “They would have never given up being Jewish for anything.”
Nor should we.