Italy: Communal prayer becomes prohibited in some areas
Italian Jewish life in danger as result of COVID-19 spread, following new government ban on gatherings in some areas, including religious.
Mordechai Sones | Arutz 7 | 25/02/20
New regulations issued by the Italian Health Ministry following fear of COVID-19 spread are causing concern in Jewish communities not only because of the virus, but also the very ability to live a basic Jewish life.
The regulations apply in certain areas in the north of the state and prohibit events and gatherings of all kinds, both in closed public places and in open places, including cultural, sporting, and religious events.
About 35,000 Jews live in Italy and many are worried about what may soon befall Jewish life in the country. Already this Shabbat, a bar mitzvah was canceled in one of the communities in the country and further event cancellations are feared.
Another basic concern is the ability to pray with a minyan, an halakhic quorum of at least ten male Jews needed for communal prayer: “Our people respect the regulations both because it is halakhically imperative to uphold the laws of the state in which they live, and also because of danger to life for fear someone may become infected at prayer, and to prevent hilul Hashem,” says Straus-Amiel Institute head Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, who heads the Straus-Amiel program of the Ohr Torah Stone network, which trains rabbis for Diaspora emissary work and who is in contact with the network’s emissaries who serve as rabbis throughout the world.
He said, “There are synagogues that continue to hold minyan as usual, but the concern is growing along with the spread of the virus. Already, many synagogues prefer not to bring tourists into the synagogues out of concern that tourists come in contact with many people and are more at risk.”
“The Synagogue is closed until further notice”
In Venice, a number of infections were detected and it was also decided to end the famous mask festival ahead of time for fear of mass infection with the virus. That’s why Venice Chief Rabbi Daniel Twito, emissary of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Program, decided to close the doors of the synagogue.
“We obey state and district regulations. ‘Danger trumps halakhic injunction’. There is a particularly high risk for older people, who make up the majority our of community. The community – including the synagogue – attracts tourists from all over the world and there’s fear that perhaps one of them may be ill,” Rabbi Twito says. “Therefore, officially, halakhically and practically, the synagogue is closed until further notice. No prayers will be held on weekdays or Shabbat.”
Rabbi Twito expresses great sadness at the synagogue’s closure for the first time in centuries. “There will be no prayer this Shabbat. There has been an unequivocal instruction from the municipality and the district that is legally binding and we must align with that. There is also a legal consideration here, beyond the precept of “dina demalchuta dina – the law of the land is the law to be followed. We haven’t been told not to pray,” he points out, “but rather, not to gather together.”
According to Rabbi Twito, this is unprecedented: “The elders of the community say that even during the war, they did not close the synagogue, but we cannot take a risk at the moment. I hope that along with the Adar month when we increase in joy, the decree will soon pass. But the situation has hit the Venetian Jewish community hard. The sense of community has been clipped. Everyone was so looking forward to Purim and of course now all the communal preparations have stopped. Purim will not look like it should look and we are already looking at Pesach. We usually hold two communal seders, but now everything is at a standstill.”
“It’s precisely during these times that a community needs a rabbi”
Rabbi Twito says, “We also had to close the community center and cancel all classes, so my wife and I are giving all of our regular classes virtually, via Zoom or other apps. Yesterday we spent a fascinating evening on the computer, providing virtual lessons to community members.”
On a personal level, the situation is affecting Rabbi Twito and his wife: “My wife and I came here as emissaries six months ago. Our children and grandchildren remained in Israel, and already had tickets to visit which had to be cancelled. Over and above the financial impact, it causes us great sadness. We do not know if we will be able to see them over Pesach,” he says. “But we do not think about returning to Israel in spite of the danger, because it’s precisely during these times that a community needs a rabbi.”
Straus-Amiel graduate Rabbi Daniel Twito, Chief Rabbi of Venice, gave an update to Arutz 7 on 27/02/20 (in Hebrew):