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In this city that is the center of the Catholic Church, it might to surprise you to learn that, after Jerusalem, Rome is the site of the longest continuous Jewish community in the world. Called Tempio Maggiore di Roma in Italian, the Great Synagogue of Rome was built relatively recently, from 1901 to 1904. However, there has been a Jewish Synagogue of Rome dating to at least the second century before the Christian Era, when leader Judah Maccabeus and the Roman Empire formed an alliance. Many Jews emigrated from the land of Israel during that time, and there is evidence of several synagogues and Jewish catacombs. Two of the catacombs are open to the public, and are located in the same area outside of the city at the Catacombs of San Callitso. Despite various conflicts, persecutions, and outright wars, there has been a strong Jewish community in Rome ever since.
In 1555, the anti-Semitic Pope Paul IV issued a Papal Bull that reduced Rome’s Jewish community to virtual slavery. They were confined to a ghetto in the area around Via Portico d’Ottavia that is still the center of today’s Jewish community and near several other popular Rome attractions. They lost their property rights, were forced to wear the Jewish Star when leaving the ghetto, and were restricted in all forms of trade and professions. The Jewish Museum of Rome, located in today’s Great Synagogue of Rome, chronicles this period.
After the unification of Italy in 1870, the new government ended this discrimination, destroying the walls of the ghetto and granting the Jews equal rights of other citizens. Plans for the current Jewish Synagogue of Rome began at this time. The Jewish Museum of Rome dates to the 1950s, and was housed in only two small rooms until a substantial renovation and influx of funds at the turn of the 21st century. It is the most important of all historical monuments in Italian Judaism.
The Great Synagogue of Rome is large and impressive, dominating the square where it sits, and is of a very eclectic style with the only squared dome in the city. This makes it easily identifiable, as it is visible from many vantage points in the city. These were deliberate architectural features, designed to draw attention to the symbolism of the building and celebration of the new freedoms of the Jewish community. The history of Italian Jews pre-dates the destruction of the second Temple at Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Thus, they are not Sephardi (from the eastern or Arab countries) or Askenazi (from Eastern Europe), and they have their own rite called Nusach Italki. Even in Hebrew, they are distinct, and called “Romanim.”
The Jewish Museum of Rome has several collections and exhibits of Judaica of international interest. There is a Gallery of Antique Marbles from the synagogues of the ghetto, and a fascinating collection of textiles from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. There are silver liturgical objects, bound prayer books, and eighteenth-century lamps, jugs, Ark keys, and bowls. Additionally, you can view a collection of historical art from the ghetto and old photographs from the nineteenth century. The Jewish Synagogue of Rome is the seat of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and hosted an unexpected visit from Pope John Paul II in 1986.
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