Florence’s Jewish community struggles in the face of tourism

By Jessica Hayhurst

FLORENCE, Italy – Amedeo Spagnoletto, who was installed as rabbi of Florence’s only synagogue in late 2016, has a vision to revitalize the Florentine Jewish community.

Amedeo Spagnoletto

“We are focusing much more on the Florentine Jews than the outside tourists,” Spagnoletto said about the focus of the synagogue under his leadership. Specifically, he said the synagogue will look to the future by expanding its programs in education.

Spagnoletto replaced Joseph Levi on October 11, 2017. He said in June 2018 that he is taking discrete steps toward emphasizing education, including twice-a-week Talmud Torah classes for youth between 7 and 18 years old, even though financially these classes operate at a loss.

The Jewish Synagogue of Florence, the only synagogue in the city, opened in 1882. The building houses a museum detailing the history of Florentine Jews, and the complex runs a preschool for 3- to 6-year-olds.

The synagogue also runs a preschool for children between the ages of 3 and 6 years old.

Spagnoletto is also taking steps to re-open the elementary school to continue children’s education of Judaism beyond the two days a week after preschool now offered.

“The challenge is to send them to Jewish camps in the summer and the winter in order to balance this lack of Judaic knowledge,” Spagnoletto said.

The elementary school closed 35 years ago due to a lack of enrollment. Spagnoletto traces that decline to the growth in tourism to the city and, as a result, the flight into the hills by Jewish residents.

As a result, there are increasingly fewer families who regularly come to the synagogue for services and for their children’s education. Spagnoletto said that even if 60 percent of children in the Jewish community came to the school, enrollment would total less than 20 students.

Balancing act

Adorned with paper flowers, this banister separates non-Jews from Jews during services.

While the synagogue is a place that welcomes anyone, he said, it faces many struggles to remain the center of religious practice for many of Tuscany’s Jews. The biggest challenge is simply Florence’s popularity among tourists, including Jewish tourists.

Many of the synagogue’s members have moved outside of the city center to live in the hills, far away from the tides of tourists that make travel to the synagogue increasingly difficult.

“It is a lot for someone to drive in every day to drop their kids off at school, to come to services on Friday,” Spagnoletto said. “Where are they going to park? How early do they need to leave the home to get here?”

And yet, the synagogue is and must be a place for Jewish people to connect, he said. For Jewish visitors to the city, the synagogue must help connect them with Jewish tradition and community in a new way.

“For the Jewish people of Florence, it’s a way of feeling alive and also to be in touch with new ways of living Judaism,” Spagnoletto said of the benefits to Florentine Jews of having so many Jewish visitors from other places.

It is this connection to tradition that Spagnoletto said produces a thriving community.

In order to preserve the sacred, which includes Jewish religious practice at the synagogue, while remaining accessible to tourists, including, and even especially, Jewish tourists from around the world, the synagogue has hired a company to handle admissions to the site. A ticket includes access to an upstairs museum and the small bookshop on the premises.

Tourists can visit inside the synagogue only from 10 a.m. to noon most weekdays, and visitors are only allowed to the synagogue’s services if they are attending to participate, he said.

“This is a place where the cultures, the religions, are coming together,” Spagnoletto said.


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