The Jewish Ghetto in Venice

When you are a minority in the country you call home, it is easy to get a sense of feeling lost. When you travel some place and you realize in some small area you are no longer a minority, you change. You feel more comfortable, confident in your walk and talk. You no longer wonder about your place in the world.

I recently planned and traveled to Europe, visiting five cities with my niece to celebrate her completion of her Bat Mitzvah. As I watched the news for the last year and saw all the things happening in the world to the Jewish people, I became nervous. However, along the way, we had the pleasure of going to Venice, Italy, where there is a thriving Jewish community. There are over 270,000 permanent residents in Venice. Of those residents, 500 of them are Jewish. In Venice's Jewish neighborhood, you have that sense of belonging and do not have the constant awareness of being in the minority. There is a Jewish school, a Talmud Torah, kindergarten and an old age Home.

In planning the trip, I booked us a room at Giardino Dei Melgorani, Kosher House. When I saw this, I knew it was the place we should stay. We happened to be there over Shabbos, so we had to climb our stairs instead of using the elevator and needed to ensure everything was taken care of before Shabbos approached. Unknown to us was that this hotel was in the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, the New Jewish Ghetto. We passed many Jewish shops and restaurants on our way to the hotel. We saw the children with kippahs and tzitzit, the mothers preparing for Shabbos and every tourist stopping and staring at all the action taking place. We also saw a Jewish museum that explained the history of the area.

Upon checking in to the hotel, we sat and talked with the person helping us. He offered to have us attend Shabbos services in the community, something we unfortunately declined as we lacked appropriate clothes to be respectful to those in the community. He did go on to tell us the story of the community. In Venice today, there are five active synagogues: a Spanish, Levantin, Italian, Canton and German Synagogue. He told us how Venice was the first location to make Ghetto a place on the map, and not just where the Jewish people where within a town, but to make it its own town to the world. This blew my mind.

The history lesson continued with telling us that on March 29, 1516, the government issued special laws to establish the first Ghetto of Europe. While this may seem like a positive, it also came with rules that the Jewish people were forced to follow. The Jewish people could not live anywhere else except in the Ghetto and were locked in from sunset to dawn. He then showed us the two areas in which the doors were located and how open they are now. The Jewish people were also only allowed to work certain professions: doctors, money-lenders, merchants and strazzarioli (rag sellers). This Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries.

The next part of the story was something I had never heard before, and my niece and I were both surprised. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, he broke down the doors and gates to the Ghetto, freeing the Jewish people and giving them the opportunity to roam the city with no limitations and making them a part of the community at large, not just their small section.

As we walked around after this story, we were so much more aware of our surroundings. Seeing all the street signs took on a new meaning for both of us. When we walked up the stairs leaving the Ghetto that was previously locked off, there was this sense of freedom that even I felt. It reminded me of the same feeling of pride I felt when leaving concentration camps when I was in Poland. This was sense of "even though they tried to destroy us, we are proof that they could not."

After this experience, I would love to go back and spend more time in Venice. I want to experience the things I was unable to do and see because of my limited time.

A Visit to Cuba's Jewish Community

By Terry Waslow

I recently returned from a very brief visit to the Jewish Community in Havana, Cuba. It is impossible to learn a lot through a short tour, but what I did learn will stay with me for a very long time. The effort and commitment of the community to live a Jewish life and stay connected is inspiring. The true sense of community was so evident.

There were two of us visiting, and a young woman, Anaya, was our tour guide. She told us many things about the community and took us to a number of places. Aproximately 1,000 Jews reside in Havana and another 200 or so are scattered around the island. Anaya says that even though they are small in number, they are like a large family and all are connected to each other.

We started at the Jewish Community Center, Patronato de la casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. This is where Anaya works full time. She also teaches Sunday school. She was very proud of her role as teacher of the youngest children and this sense of pride radiated as she showed us her classroom. The community center provides many services, including a youth center. By U.S. standards, it is very small and sparse, but Anaya explained that it is the only place that young people can come to watch television and work on the computer. These items are rarely found in homes. The community center also sponsors teams to particpate in the Maccabi games and Anaya had the opportunity to go with them to Israel to compete. The community center houses an awesome library with 14,000 titles in Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish and English. They were able to get funding and have begun to digitize the collection, which has a number of rare books.

From the community center we moved on to the three active synagogues in Havana. Next door to the community center is Temple Beth Shalom. It is the largest of the three synagogues, with a steady showing of about 60 or more congregants attending Shabbos services every Friday night and Saturday morning. We also went to the Sephardic synagogue and the Orthodox shul, which is the smallest of the three. A member of the Orthodox community was sent to Israel to learn to be a shoykhet (kosher butcher). He butchers animals once a month and then the meat is distributed to all the Jews in Havana. They receive 3-4 pounds of meet per month. This is a good amount of meat by Cuban standards and more than most Cubans are able to get. We happened to be there the day of the butchering and it was an unforgettable sight to see. It takes place right inside the kitchen of the synagogue. As the shoykhet is butchering, other community members are packing up the meat in plastic bags and others are loading a van for distribution. There was no modern equipment, no airtight ziplock bags and no refrigerated trucks. This was truly an effort to provide sustenance with the major resource being commitment to community.

Every place we went, that commitment was evident. There were classes going on for adults, activities for seniors and there was a pharmacy housed in one of the synagogues that provided medication to the Jewish community, which was also open and available to the larger non-Jewish community. While healthcare is free and available to everyone in Cuba, there are not enough resources on the island to stock adequate supplies of pharmacueticals. The Jewish community gets donations from other Jewish communities around the world and makes the medicines available to all.

There is no rabbi in Cuba. They have an ongoing relationship with a rabbi in Argentina. He visits periodically and conducts conversions and weddings. Anaya explained that the non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages often want to convert to Judaism. Also, they have requests to go through the conversion process from adult children whose fathers are Jewish, but their mothers are not Jewish. They have been raised in the Jewish community, but want an official conversion. While couples have a civil wedding, many of them also want a Jewish ceremony. Since the rabbi only comes periodically, they have group weddings. The largest ceremony consisted of 28 couples.

Anaya showed us many photographs of events that they have been held and important people that have visited. She seemed especially proud of the photos of Steven Spielberg, and pointed out the photos of both Fidel and Raul Castro visiting and meeting with their community's president. Anaya showed us a small park with a large menorah in the center and explained that it was given to the Jewish Community as a gift from the government.

What we saw over and over was the lack of resources that impacts the entire population and how the Jewish community is impacted. They receive support from other Jewish communities, but, due to the United States embargo, it is impossible for U.S. Jews to offer substantial assistance.

I ended my visit with both asense of sadness and awe. I was sad knowing that I would leave and not be able to help in any way other than what I was able to give that day. I was also greatly inspired by the awesome commitment and sense of pride that Anaya and the other members of her community have in maintaining their Jewish identity.

Walk for Hunger

By Joan Kurtz

Isaiah 58:7 Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.

With this quote in mind, I joined another like-minded person and walked to stop hunger.

Ken Johnston from Amherst, Mass., decided to walk around 45 miles in western Massachusetts to make people aware of the need to feed the hungry in our neighborhoods. He was asking people to make donations to three local food pantries, one of them located in the Easthampton Community Center (ECC) where I volunteer. When I heard about this, I decided to join him for part of the walk. I also invited some of my hiking friends to join us. Sadly, only my friend Helaine could join us that day.

On a cool (54 degree) but sunny morning, Helaine and I met Ken at 8:30am at the start of his walk in Amherst where Helaine lives. Since Ken was going to walk for three days, he carried a large backpack with a sign that read “Feed the Hungry” on the pack. I wore a bright red t-shirt, emblazoned with the words, “Stop the Hunger, Proceeds to Benefit the Easthampton Community Food Pantry.” There are bike and walking trails (formerly railroad tracks) connecting Amherst to Easthampton, so we did not have to walk on the road but under trees and along streams. Since the weather was perfect, the trails were packed with walkers, bikers, joggers and more.

We talked about our lives, past and present, and became more comfortable with each other. Ken’s passion for helping others was profound. My experience volunteering at our food pantry made me more aware of how many people in my own town have a need for food assistance. My pantry feeds 1,200 families, about 3,500 people, 700 of those children. It’s heartbreaking to see this, and they are so appreciative for all that we do to help.

After walking around four miles, Helaine decided she was getting tired so we said our goodbyes but I told Ken I would meet him at the ECC where he would be stopping for lunch. Helaine and I walked back, I got into my car and drove to the ECC. Ken was interviewed by one of our local TV stations on his way. He also posted videos on his Facebook page about his walk. Ken made it to Easthampton, 11 miles later, where we had lunch and chatted with the director. Afterwards, I headed to home and Ken continued his journey. Two days later, I saw that he completed his walk as planned.

Our food pantry, like all food pantries, is always looking for donations, both monetary as well as non-perishable foods. “Hunger does not take a day off” says our ECC director. So please think about either helping at your own food pantry or drop off some food. It will be appreciated and well used.