The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Jewish Federation’s Journey to Italy: Learning, Walking, Eating, and…We Met the Pope!

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No sooner had the Thanksgiving leftovers been eaten, than twenty intrepid travelers journeyed to Venice, Italy, the first stop in The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville’s latest travel abroad adventure. The 12-day trip included major stops in Venice, Florence, and Rome, with side trips to several smaller towns featuring ancient Jewish history. And along the way there was wine tasting, pasta making, shopping, and of course, pizza! 

The trip kicked off with a welcome dinner at a kosher restaurant in the city’s Jewish ghetto, a short walk from the hotel. The next morning, participants boarded water taxis for the short ride to the famed Piazzo San Marco to begin a walking tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, once home to the Venetian Republic’s political and administrative life. The group braved chilly temperatures and constant drizzle, avoiding puddles, and navigating raised wooden platforms erected in winter to allow safe foot passage during the regular flooding.  

The afternoon featured a walking tour of the Jewish ghetto, established in the early 1500s and the oldest ghetto in the world. The tour included a visit to two of the ghetto’s five museums, the Levantine and the Spanish synagogues, both housed in the same building. The ghetto’s architecture is ancient and unique, and the main square includes a Holocaust memorial. Today, only a few hundred people are part of the Venice Jewish community, and many do not live in the city due to the high cost of living. 

After leaving Venice, there was a stop in the ancient town of Ferrara. Jewish history there dates back to the Middle Ages, and during the renaissance enlightened city rulers encouraged Jewish settlement. But once again, the city fell under control of the pope and a ghetto was established in the 17th century. The town features narrow cobblestone streets lined with medieval buildings that once housed Jews. The tour also included a visit to the new Museum of Italian Judaism and of the Shoah (MEIS Museum). The exhibit takes visitors through 2,000 years of Jewish history. 

As Shabbat was approaching, the next destination was a four day stay in Florence. The group welcomed Shabbat together and walked to a local kosher restaurant for dinner. Members of the local Jewish community joined for dinner to answer questions and share their experiences. 

Shabbat morning was once again drizzly and chilly, but thankfully the featured tour was inside the Accademia Gallery, the former art school and current home to Michelangelo’s David, and other Florentine artists. In the afternoon, participants had free time to explore Florence, and despite the cold, enjoy world famous gelato. 

The synagogue in Florence was the destination the next morning. This historic beauty is one of the largest in Europe and is visible throughout the city of Florence. It was built just after the reunification of Italy, and the Jewish emancipation. During World War II Nazis occupied the building and it was set for destruction, but Italian resistance fighters managed to save it from major damage, and it was restored after the war. The inside of the ornate dome is covered in mosaics in the Moorish style. 

After spending time in the magnificent synagogue, the group boarded the bus for a ride to the town of Livorno. The afternoon included several stops, beginning with the synagogue, a modern construction built after World War II. Next was lunch with members of the local Jewish community, including the local rabbi, followed by a walking tour of the historic Jewish cemetery. 

The trip included visits to other historic towns and villages. Notably the village of Pitigliano was a highlight for participants who climbed cobblestone streets carved into the Tuscan countryside. This town has seen a Jewish presence since the early 1500s and served as a refuge for Jews exiled from Rome. Here the ghetto includes a synagogue, mikveh, and bakehouse for preparing challah and matzoh. The picturesque village is also the scene of films and even a Super Bowl commercial. 

One of the unique highlights of the trip was the visit to the Vatican and a papal audience. Rabbi Kullock arranged the visit through an Argentinian friend who is a leader in the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, and a longtime friend of the pope. The morning began early with a wait for security clearance. The group walked through the courtyard, past ornate Swiss guards in traditional garb, and was seated in the large auditorium where approximately 8,000 people come each week for the audience. The Nashville Jewish Federation was welcomed from the stage prior to the service. The mood was festive with band music, banners, and signs.  

Also among the audience was a group of novice nuns present to have their rings blessed by the pope. They explained the path to becoming a nun can be long and requires much study and discipline. They came from the Philipines, China, and parts of South America and Europe, and will be assigned to communities around the world.  

The service featured hymns and a homily presented in different languages, followed by a short speech by the pope himself. He spoke about the need for peace in Ukraine, Israel, and around the world. After the service, the group was ushered to the stage to wait for the opportunity to meet the pope and some were able to shake his hand. Rabbi Kullock greeted him, in Spanish, on behalf of the group, offering wishes for his good health.  

For Lupe Botts, a practicing Catholic and member of the group, this was a milestone event in her life. “I will remember this my whole life,” she said, “I’ve texted everyone I know to tell them about it and sent pictures.” Botts also was front and center to shake the pope’s hand. 

The remaining days in Rome were spent visiting historic architectural sites like the Colosseum, the Forum, Spanish Steps, and much more. There was a visit to the Jewish catacombs which, unlike non-Jewish catacombs, features individual burial slots where bodies were placed and covered with a stone covering. The ghetto of Rome and the great synagogue were also highlights. The Jewish community of Rome dates to the 2nd century BCE. The current synagogue was built in the early 1900s after the reunification of Italy and is the largest of the 18 synagogues in Italy. The sanctuary is ornate and highlighted by red and gold touches. The building also houses the Jewish Museum and the Spanish sanctuary.  

Trip participants included current Federation board members, community leaders, newcomers, and friends and relatives from outside Nashville. At the closing dinner, everyone remarked on the bonds they formed with each other. Board member David Bockian said, “It has been so great to meet new people and make new friends. I’m also happy I could share this with my brother.” Bockian’s brother, Dr. Steven Bockian, joined the group from Orlando, Florida. And participant Carol Berk, who along with her husband Bill, is new to Nashville, said, “We are so happy to meet new people and get to know the community better. And to do it in Italy makes it even better.” 

The final evening began with a community candle lighting in the Piazza Bologna in Rome. It was a moving ceremony hosted by the local Chabad, complete with prayers, singing, and the local fire department tossing treats to the kids. Board member Christie Wiemers echoed what many in the group felt, “It’s so nice to be in community, out in public, in Rome.”  

What began as 20 individual travelers became a tight knit group of 20 friends who are grateful for the time together, and happy to return to continue building on the friendships that began on a memorable journey to Italy.  

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