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In southern Italy, the Catholic Church saved Hanukkah

For the Jewish community of Serrastretta, a small town In Italy’s southern Calabria region, it seemed like communal Hanukkah celebrations would be impossible this year — until an unexpected savior came to the rescue.

Still recovering from more than 70,000 deaths as one of the world’s early coronavirus hot spots, Italy’s strict social distancing laws meant that even the small Jewish community of Serrastretta could not fit within the space of their synagogue while still maintaining 6 feet of distance between congregants. In mountainous Calabria, an outdoor service was a no-go in winter.

Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, whose name means “the eternal light of the south” in a mixture of Hebrew and Italian, is the first synagogue in Calabria in modern history. Its congregation is largely composed of Bnei Anusim, descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the churches’ inquisitions.

However, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reports, it was the Church who came to the rescue this year, when local parish priest, Don Antonio Costantino, offered up his church, Chiesa di Santa Maria del Perpetua Soccorso, as an alternative location for the congregation to observe Hanukkah.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Barbara Aiello, a Pittsburgh native of Calabrian descent who is the first female rabbi to operate in Italy, quickly accepted the offer — and invited Costantino and his congregation to take part in the ceremony.

“Adon olam, Spirit of the Universe, God of our understanding, You are called by many names. The words we use to honor you are different and diverse. Help us see that beneath all these differences we are all connected,” the two spiritual leaders said together at the ceremony, alternating between English and Italian, before lighting some 50 menorahs, a part of the synagogue’s own Hanukkah tradition.

It wasn’t the local church leader’s first effort to build ties with the Jewish community.

“In the days following the Tree of Life tragedy, Don Antonio and our mayor, Felice Molinaro, approached me to organize a memorial for those who were killed,” Aiello told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

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