Sicily's "Lost Jews" to Receive First Synagogue in Five Centuries

“And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the Law of Hashem their God a fourth part of the day.” (Nechemiah 9:3)

More than 500 years after the Jews were expelled from Sicily, the nascent Jewish community of Palermo will celebrate its rebirth this week with the formal transfer of ownership of a facility owned by the church and monastery of St. Nicolo Tolentino, which sits atop the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Palermo. The transfer comes in response to a request by the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel and the Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici (ISSE, or Sicilian Institute for Jewish Studies).

The handover will be carried out in an official ceremony this Thursday, marking the anniversary of the Jan. 12, 1493 expulsion of the island’s Jews. It will usher in the opening of the first local synagogue in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, since the 15th century. The move comes as a growing number of people throughout Sicily are rediscovering their Jewish roots.

The ceremony is expected to draw hundreds of dignitaries and local residents, eager to see the archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, officially delivering part of the complex to the local Jewish community, which numbers around 70.

“It is with great joy that we have responded to this request to have a place of study and worship for the Palermo Jewish community,” Lorefice said. “The new synagogue’s location atop the ancient ruins of Palermo’s Great Synagogue makes this historic moment all the more exciting. This transfer is the product of a genuine friendship and ongoing dialogue between the church and Palermo’s Jewish community.”

The church’s historic decision to help revive the Palermo Jewish community comes after more than five years of tireless lobbying by Shavei Israel’s founder and chairman, Michael Freund. Freund’s ultimate vision – to revitalize Palermo’s once-vibrant Jewish community for the first time since 1493 – is now finally being realized.

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“Ever since I learned about Sicily’s history, my goal has been to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the first Jewish community in Palermo in more than five centuries,” said Freund. “I am very moved that it will be located adjacent to where the Great Synagogue of Palermo once stood and I am grateful to the Archbishop of Palermo for having the vision and courage to make such a grand gesture of reconciliation towards the Jewish people.”

Freund added: “It is a miracle that after more than 500 years there are still people in Sicily who proudly cling to their Jewish roots, and it is a testimony to the fact that neither the expulsion nor the Inquisition was able to extinguish the eternal Jewish spark in their hearts. With God’s help, the sounds of Shabbat hymns and Jewish prayers will once again be heard in the streets of Palermo.”

The synagogue, which will include a beit midrash (study center), and a Jewish heritage center, will be overseen by Shavei’s emissary to Sicily, Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, who serves as the rabbi of the local Jewish community. Punturello also serves as a board member of the ISSE.

Shavei Israel has been working closely with a growing number of Sicilians whose forefathers were forced to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, yet secretly preserved Jewish traditions and are now rediscovering their Jewish roots. There are believed to be thousands of such crypto-Jews, called “Bnei Anousim” (children of the forced ones) across Sicily.