Italy / Calabria


Serrastretta. Photo by CZCSRCAL – Wikipedia

In 2007, this small town in Calabria inaugurated the first synagogue opened in the region in 500 years.

A project made possible thanks to the dedication of Barbara Aiello who was the first female rabbi in Italy, since 2004.

Born in the United States, her family was originally from this city. Barbara Aiello’s father, who grew up there, participated as a soldier in the liberation of Buchenwald.

Synagogue of Serrastretta. Photo by

Since 2007, the Ner Tamid del Sud synagogue has welcomed many Jewish families from the region wishing to pray and celebrate holidays, bat and bat mitzvot, as well as weddings.

As the founder of the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, which is located on the ground floor of the synagogue, Aiello helps the descendants of families forcibly converted during the Middle Ages to rediscover Judaism.

This synagogue is currently the only one in operation in the Calabria region.

Here’s out interview with Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Rabbis Kennebrae, Aiello and Hall. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Aiello

Jguideeurope: You are originally from the region of Calabria. What motivated you to come back, build a synagogue and develop Judaism in the region?

Rabbi Barbara Aiello: My father. He was part of a crypto Judaic family, or as we say bnei anusim, the “children of the coerced ones”. His ancestors have come from Toledo during the time of the persecution and the expulsion from Spain. They went to Lisbon, then Sicily, the Aeolian islands, then from the mainland of Italy into the mountains. My father felt that there was a rich Jewish history here. I was the first one in my family born in the United States. My father talked so much about this, I brought him back to Serrastretta, actually four times before he died in 1980. Each time he said: “There’s so much to be done here and you can do it because you received a Jewish education”. Unfortunately, the people here have only bits and pieces of their traditions, and sometimes don’t even know those pieces are related to Judaism.

How did you reach out to them?

Many people ask why I chose Serrastretta for the first synagogue. In these little mountain towns, it’s hard to start anything new if you are unknown. My mother-in-law was the first woman doctor in Calabria and our family was well known. It was considered an honor to the town that someone from America would want to come back. I have a very unusual combination of skills: Italian and Hebrew. I could ascertain immediately various words that many people here believed were Italian mountain dialect but were actually Hebrew. For example, little crumbs on a table are called by Calabrians here ”hametz”. The “baita” is a little house that you build where you would stay to tend your crops. My great-grandfather, Saverio Scalise, who was the father of my grandmother, lead Hebrew prayers in the cantina of this house where I’m speaking you from. The synagogue is the building next door. Four times in the 1880s he went to study in Val-David, a little Hasidic settlement in Montreal. When he gathered people for prayer, it concerned the extended family. Not in public, it was too dangerous to be overt.

Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Aiello

Is this revival of Jewish life linked more to a wish of discovering of embracing Jewish roots?

We are the first active synagogue in the whole area of Calabria in 500 years since the Inquisition and the first affiliate member of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement. We are open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds. That includes interfaith families, patrilineal descent, gay and lesbian couples. We extend a hand of Jewish welcome to everyone recapturing their roots, reconnecting culturally and spiritually. I say to my community that you can embrace or just discover your Jewish roots. In the Jewish cultural center of Calabria, we organize many events for our community. We just had a Festival in the region, featuring all the crafts and the arts of many centuries ago. We participated by showing some of the elements of a Jewish wedding, putting up a huppah in the synagogue where 600 people walked through, listening to your presentation. I’m also very involved with the Ferramonti camp, doing Rosh Hashanah there for the fourth year in a row. Looks like we’ll be doing Yom Kippur in Trani. We try to make our presence known all over the region.

Do you receive many genealogical research requests?

At least ten a week! The reason is that the immigration from Italy to America was primarily from Calabria and Sicily, the two poorest regions: 81%! And if indeed 50 % of Calabrians and Sicilians prior to the Inquisition were Jewish, your chance of being Jewish in North America is greater than if you’re an Italian living in Italy. We have many visitors and a program which gives information about family surnames. We trace family surnames, if possible, back to Spain and where the name migrated on its way to Italy. Happy to have tourists, people can come and visit us by appointment and we share with them the Jewish heritage of the region.

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