Synagogue taken by church returned to Jewish community after 5 centuries

The Jewish community in Palermo is coming back to life and building its first synagogue in five centuries. 

In a ceremony in Palermo, Sicily,  Archbishop Corrado Lorefice announced Thursday that the site containing ruins of the city’s ancient synagogue is being returned to the local Jewish community after serving as a church for five centuries.

The community plans to build a new synagogue near the ruins of the old one, the first in 524 years in Palermo.

The Jews of Sicily were expelled January 12, 1493 by order of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. The synagogue was destroyed, and the site on which it stood was taken over by the Roman Catholic Church and the monastery of St. Nicolo Tolentino.

Since then, there has been no Jewish life in Palermo.

Thursday’s ceremony was held at the Historical Archives of Palermo, which, like the monastery, was built on the ruins of the synagogue. The decision to return the site to the Jewish community was made in response to a request by the Shavei Israel organization, a group dedicated to helping “lost” Jews worldwide reclaim their roots and re-embrace Judaism, and the Sicilian Institute for Jewish Studies (SIJS).

The ceremony was attended by hundreds of descendants of Anusim—Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

“Locating the new synagogue on the ancient ruins of the Great Synagogue of Palermo makes this historic moment especially exciting,” Archbishop of Palermo Corrado Lorefice said.

“More than 500 years after the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily, and after five years of lobbying by Shavei Israel’s chairman, Michael Freund, Palermo’s small Jewish community is set to celebrate the opening of its first synagogue since the expulsion of the Jews from Italy in 1493,” Shavei Israel wrote on its Facebook page.

“524 years ago, Palermo’s Great Synagogue fell silent when Sicilian Jewry was expelled. Now, the Catholic Church is restoring the site where it stood to the Jewish people – and we will once again fill it with the sounds of Torah and prayer. Such is the power of Jewish memory and the pull of Jewish destiny,” Shavei Israel stated.

By: World Israel News Staff contributed to this report.