An animated discussion took place a little more than three years ago when Congregation Lev Chadash in Milan, Italy, was a newly established synagogue. The discussion was sparked by the mention by one of its charter members of a possible visit from an American rabbi, a woman.
The discussion also included the congregation's sponsoring rabbi in London. The general consensus was that it might be too soon for such a visit.
Lev Chadash was Italy's first Reform, first non-Orthodox synagogue and not even all its congregants were ready for the changes that were around the corner. Concerns were also expressed about the reaction of the established Orthodox community that had done what it could to prevent this moment.
Last September, Lev Chadash hired its first full-time rabbi -- a woman.
In so doing, said the newly hired Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the congregation defined "the differences without argument" between Orthodoxy and the more modernizing expressions of Judaism.
Aiello is a first-generation American whose father's family immigrated to Pittsburgh from a village in Calabria in southern Italy. Until this year, she was the only one of 11 close-knit cousins who did not live in Italy.
Aiello graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and began her career as a special education teacher. She obtained a master's degree in education and psychology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In addition, to a full career as an teacher, she created The Kids on the Block, a puppet program used to educate children about children with disabilities.
The rabbi traces her ancestors in Italy back about 500 years to the Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition. Those Jews were known as conversos or marranos -- Spanish for swine -- or crypto-Jews if they continued to secretly practice Judaism. Aiello pointed out that the Hebrew word "anusim," which means the "forced ones," best encompasses all of the definitions.
Sent to Europe during World War II as a U.S. soldier, Aiello's father, Antonio, was present at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. When Aiello gave birth to her daughter 26 years ago, her father admonished her to not let her daughter be "lost to the Jewish people." That was a turning point for Aiello who began a journey of return to Judaism.
Aiello eventually participated in a ritual of return -- not a conversion -- since she always considered herself Jewish. But a more dramatic change of direction came midcareer, when she entered the Rabbinical Seminary International in New York City.
In August 1999, just before her 52nd birthday, she was ordained. That year she became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Bradenton, Fla.
An invitation from Congregation Lev Chadash brought the rabbi to Milan to conduct this past year's Passover services; a job offer followed. The synagogue had been organizing, fund-raising and searching for a rabbi for much of the previous year.
Newly arrived in Milan this September, Aiello conducted the congregation's High Holiday services and began planning new activities for its 200 members. Two months after her arrival, the congregation now offers weekly Shabbat services and a twice-monthly Sunday school program. A b'nai mitzvah celebration was held for four children, and new Torah and Hebrew-language study groups, a personal counseling service and a new conversion class were organized.
Italians today continue to rediscover their Jewish roots. Some of those roots go back as far as the rabbi's. For others, the family loss is as recent as the Nazi deportations during World War II.
The rabbi is matter of fact when she states that no one should "apologize for their background." On Nov. 25, 2004, Aiello accompanied seven participants of Lev Chadash's third conversion class who were presented to the beit din of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in London.
As for the many other challenges that face Aiello and Congregation Lev Chadash in the near future, she diplomatically said that they'll focus on the "things that unite us, not divide us." Above all, the rabbi acknowledges that her new role as teacher and spiritual guide in Italy is "a tremendous opportunity and humbling experience."
Jonathan Specktor writes from Berkshire County, England. He can be contacted at< href="mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org"> email@example.com.