By David Fiorentini
Ruth Dureghello is the President of the Jewish community of Rome, the oldest Jewish community of Europe and the most numerous of Italy. Between ten and fifteen thousand Jews live in the city.
After being elected for the first time in 2015, President Dureghello has been confirmed in 2019 with an outstanding 49% of the votes. Currently, she is also running for the UCEI (Italian Union of Jewish Communities) Executive Board, as leader of the “For Israel” list.
In an interview with European Jewish Press, she explains her motivations for the Jewish community.
You are already in your second term as President after being reelected last year. What made you decide to take this job again?
The same enthusiasm and recklessness of the first time. You don’t do two consecutive terms unless there’s a hint of recklessness. In the first occasion, it was obviously due to the fact of taking an important responsibility with little understanding of the problems to be faced. The second candidacy, instead, was to give continuity to the path of the previous year but I have never imagined being in the midst of this complex balagan that unfortunately we are facing. Having said that, however, I am happy, because having set a certain type of work in the previous mandate, fortunately some situations were and are already well guarded and clearly everything is going well.
So, how is your second experience going?
As you can see and as you read, it is proceeding mainly by dealing with the extraordinary nature of the pandemic and at the same time trying to maintain control over the various aspects and departments of the community which must necessarily continue to work. And even more so today, they must be supported in order to provide the proper continuity over time.
What are the main priorities and projects you are pursuing?
The Jewish community of Rome has a very distant history and tradition but it has always looked to the past with a perspective projected on the future, in particular regarding education, formation of the young generations and the needs of its members. These are our three main areas of intervention. An important investment on the school, first of all because there is a Jewish school in Rome, which welcomes an important number of children and teenagers from the community. Therefore in these times it is the most important center of institutional activity. Then, there are a series of activities and collaborations aimed at the formation of teenagers in the community. From youth movements to the education department, and not least the projects related to the over 18, of which Jewlead is the main representation.
What has been highlighted during the pandemic was also a great attention to social needs. Not intended only as assistance to the needy, because clearly this is a point in the immediate, but as a policy of welfare and general involvement in a redefinition of the personal future within families. For example the placement within the world of work, long-term subsistence and the drafting of applications specifically for social safety nets.
With growing Islamic anti-Semitism and the recent attacks in Vienna and Paris, how did the Jewish community of Rome react?
As you know, the Jewish community of Rome is very active in the fight against anti-Semitism, in all its different forms. Let me underline this passage, because too often in the common experience and perception, we dwell only on some forms of anti-Semitism making others lose importance.
Recently, we have seen important manifestations of Islamic anti-Semitism, especially related to fundamentalist Islam. On this point, the community is paying particular attention to highlight, in a preventive way, where the greatest danger might be directed, in particular through an intense dialogue with the institutions. In Italy, in fact, unlike other European countries, the dialogue with institutions and law enforcement is constant and continuous. But as I said, I am also concerned about other forms of anti-Semitism that remain and pervade our society and that we consider very dangerous, precisely because they are not easily identifiable.
On one hand, we experience White Suprematism, of which we witnessed a striking example in Matera a couple of years ago. On the other hand, we must acknowledge growing anti-Semitism on social media, which does not have the same ideological roots of Islamic fundamentalism, but rather uses conspiracy theories, anti-Judaism of Catholic origin and that cultural bias that has pervaded the entire history of anti-Semitism. Even during the pandemic, this spread has increased so much to induce Facebook to adopt new policies regarding contents promoting Holocaust denial.
In a nutshell, the Community of Rome has an attention at 360 degrees, especially thanks to the constant relationship with law enforcement authorities and to the promotion of volunteering.
In France, these last years, there has been a significant impact in terms of Alyah,with more and more Jews leaving the Old Continent. Do you think this phenomenon could also affect the Jews in Rome?
Yes, but not solely for safety reasons, we need to be clear about that. Each community has its own connotation, its own history, its own identity and also its different motivations. In France, the theme of Aliyah linked to a feeling of danger is a truly prevalent one. In Italy, the situation is different and particularly in Rome.Most Aliyots are linked to socio-economic issues, not to a feeling of danger. There clearly is a need to live in security and it is obvious how Israel is the country that best represents this desire. However, there is also the concept of Israel being a destination for a new life, both in terms of opportunities and of social repositioning. We cannot forget this, because it is punctually connected to the general Italian situation.
I must also say that a phenomenon which has surprised me and made me very happy is tightly related to our youngsters. There are really a lot of kids in the community, especially those who graduate from our Jewish High School, who choose to have an experience in Israel. Some of them remain, others return, but the consideration of Israel as a goal of formation, deepening and innovative research is a phenomenon that surely must be supported and valued.
How do you assess the cooperation among European Jewish organizations?
I believe that there is a good cooperation, which historically is part of the Jewish community of Rome’s tradition, as well as of the Italian communities in general. Since numerically, we really represent a negligible amount of people compared to other minorities. What has allowed us, and still allows us, to be able to deal with some issues in an efficient manner, is the strong network in the Jewish world.
For example, this was one of the most important points at the beginning of the pandemic. In the early days of restrictions, in which the Italian Jewish communities were among the first to give a signal of alarm, I immediately received the support, initially simply emotional, but then also substantial, from the Jewish Agency and from other associations focused on the security and protection of Jews. Until this day, we are continuing to deal with the pandemic, trying not to lock ourselves into our microcosm, but to team up in order to address the different issues facing our communities.
At European level, cooperation has been particularly significant for guaranteeing and safeguarding our Jewish identity. I can think of a variety of occasions, from circumcision to ritual slaughter, in which the European Jewish organizations have worked together to open a debate, at the level of the European Parliament, in order to obtain the right recognition of the principles of freedom of religion.
This is surely an important aspect of the Jewish communities that must be further enhanced and developed. Also, we encourage young people to participate in leadership or team building programs, within international contexts, as an incentive to maintain a link with those who represent an important point of view of the Jewish communities.
It hasn’t been long since Renzo Gattegna left us, what has the Italian Jewry lost with this painful loss?
It has lost a gentleman, a man of dialogue, a man attached to his own traditions and with a deep sense of belonging towards the entire community and to Judaism. Renzo was truly a person who was able to represent with elegance the Jewish world within the institutional one.
Last month, UCEI elections were postponed to March due to the pandemic. What do you think we can expect from this vote? What does Italian Judaism need in this difficult period?
We are facing an historical transition, finally we have the opportunity to review and redesign our organizational and representative models. Moreover, several other important issues must be addressed, ranging from demography, to quantity and quality of Italian Judaism, and how to give continuity to it. Therefore, it is essential to find innovative tools that will allow us to face this generation’s challenges, as well as creating new ways to involve people in the Community. In this sense, we must look at international Judaism and learn to make the most of the resources and opportunities that come from it.
For these reasons, as President of the Jewish Community of Rome and as leader of my party, I am running for the next national elections. And I am doing it with the same spirit with which I ran for office the second time, that is with sound values and a strong sense of continuity.
My message is, let’s go forward towards the future, following the masters’ teachings, with the Torah always close to our hearts and especially to our minds, and with many young people who will surely be able to find interesting ideas in the issues we will have to face.
Hanukkah is approaching, how will the Community of Rome live this joyful festivity in such a complex moment? What initiatives will take pace?
Hanukkah 2.0 will be a joyful time, definitely with our families, with lots of light, lots of warmth and attention to others. Next week, we will light the Chanukiah in front of the Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases, to thank all the doctors and healthcare workers for their tremendous work and dedication. We will try to bring some light out of our homes, accordingly to the sense of Hanukkah, in which we celebrate not only our identity, but also the importance of confrontation with others.
Then, we will also light the candles with the operators of the Israelite Hospital, which is significantly contributing to the city’s healthcare by dedicating exclusively to the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
I’m sure we will enjoy our suvganiyots and that we will dedicate much attention to our elderly, by trying to keep them safe and to bring them the positivity that they deserve, and not the one which unfortunately invades these difficult times.
This interview was conducted just before Hannukah.