Palermo’s Roman Catholic Church is apparently making amends to the Jewish community, granting it partial ownership of a church and monastery built on the ruins of a medieval synagogue. The expulsion of Sicily’s Jews began in 1493, a year after the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish community. At the time of the expulsion, Palermo’s Jewish community numbered around 5,000, according to Jewish Virtual Library.
The renovations will be financed by the Roman Catholic Church and will go towards creating a Jewish heritage center and synagogue for the city’s Jewish population, which numbers only in the dozens.
Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello, the rabbi of Palermo, also serves as the emissary to Sicily of the Shavei Israel organization, which reaches out to those with Jewish heritage, including some who may be the descendants of forced converts.
Ownership of the renovated space will be transferred to the Jewish community as part of a January 12 conference, paralleling the anniversary of the Jewish expulsion from Sicily. As Palermo has no formal Jewish community, the space will be transferred to the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies, a cultural and educational organization connected with Shavei Israel.
Michael Freund, the founder and chair of Shavei Israel, will take part in the conference as well.
Jewish Virtual Library noted that the 15th century Biblical commentator Obadiah Bertinoro spent time in Palermo between 1487–88. He “gives a vivid description of the community which he estimated at 850 families, mainly coppersmiths, ironworkers, laborers, and porters, much despised by the Christians because of their ragged clothing. The main synagogue, with its sweet-voiced cantors and its elaborate subsidiary buildings, was the most beautiful he had ever seen.”