Just over 500 years ago the Jews of Venice were forced to live in a segregated community that became known as the first-ever “ghetto,” a cramped but bustling community that at its height boasted nine synagogues.
But as the population of Venice has fallen over the years due to mass tourism and spiraling costs, so too have the number of Jews.
Now the chief rabbi of Venice, Rabbi Scialom Bahbout, says the city’s Jewish community has to find new ways to reinvent itself.
Only 500 Jews remain in Venice, with another 500 in nearby towns of Padua, Verona and Trieste. It is a small percentage of the country’s 30,000 Jewish population.
“Like the city of Venice itself, the community is becoming more and more of a museum,” Bahbout said. “We need a city that is alive.”
“It is difficult because most young people are leaving for places where they are assured of a more comprehensive Jewish life; in Italy, that means Milan or Rome,” he said. “Many also move to Israel, Paris or New York.”
The first Jews arrived in Venice in the 10th century. As the former Venetian Republic flourished over the centuries, many Jews from Germany, Portugal, Spain, France and southern Italy sought refuge in the port city and established synagogues that reflected their different ethnicities and languages.
“Life in the ghetto was vibrant because the Jews were not homogeneous. It was a melting pot,” said Riccardo Calimani, a historian who published a book about the ghetto. He is also a former president and vice president of the Jewish community in Venice.
“But today they say the community is dying like the city of Venice,” he added. “It is not easy.”
Last year, Venice hosted a major retrospective titled “Venice, the Jews and Europe – 1516-2016,” which drew thousands of visitors to the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square.
Bahbout said the success of that exhibition should energise the community so it can build a different kind of future.
“Even though we are a small community, we have deep roots,” he said. “We need to reinforce and strengthen those roots.”