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July 17, 2012

The Empty Cradles of Florence

City’s Jewish population continues to decline.

by Chardonnay Copeland

FLORENCE, Italy – The demographic numbers add up to trouble for this city’s proud, storied Jewish community.

The demographic shape of any healthy, growing population is a pyramid, said Sandro Servi, a professor and historian specializing in Jewish Italian history. The base and largest segment, in other words, should be the very young, graduating up to the top, representing that population’s most aged.

Unfortunately for the Jewish community of Florence, in the past 20 years the pyramid has been turned upside down; it’s become, in Servi’s analogy, an inverted pyramid.

Chart according to interview with Professor Sandro Servi. Servi is a historian specializing in Italian Jewish History.

Once a thriving community

In 2010 there were 28,400 Jewish residents in Italy, or less than one percent of the world’s population of Jews according to the Jewish Virtual Library, a website for the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise. This small group makes up less than one-half percent of Italy’s population.

Of that roughly 28,000, only about 700 to 800 live in Florence, or approximately 3 percent of the country’s Jewish population and less than one-half percent of the city's population. Just prior to World War II, according to Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld, who gives Jewish historical walking tours in Florence , there were 2,300 officially registered Jews in Florence.

While Florence’s (and Italy’s) Jewish population numbers are relatively stable, they represent an aging community, Servi said. In the last 20 years, for example, the numbers of younger Jews have fallen, despite growth in Florence’s overall population.

The Tempio Maggiore, or Great
Synagogue of Florence, is the
center for the Florentine Jewish
community and the location of a
Hebrew pre-school for children.
Photo by Mary Claire Stewart

Complicating matters for the Jewish community here, mainstream Italian culture threatens to assimilate younger Jews and, therefore, overwhelm their distinctively Jewish identity, traditions and practices.

Italian Jews have always known they are a minority, and that to prevent outcry or conflict, many find it easier simply to be assimilated to the dominant Roman Catholic culture, Emanuele Viterbo, general secretary for the Jewish Florence Community Center, said. Few can achieve the proper balance in yielding to Italian culture while maintaining a Jewish identity that is separate or distinct from the mainstream.

A heart-wrenching dilemma

“My children could not have a Jewish future here,” Silvia Servi said, explaining why she decided to allow her children to go to college abroad, in London and in New York City.” “Although we have all the services of the community, we felt that if we wanted our children to have a Jewish future, we would try to suggest to them to go to the broader world and have different experiences." The trade-off in identity definitely affects the lives of those who make up such a relatively small community. The choice facing many Jews here is difficult: Remain in Florence and as a Jew forever swim against the cultural tide, or leave to find a more vibrant Jewish community abroad and probably never return. Most who stay decide to not live a Jewish life, said Silvia Servi, Sandro Servi’s wife and a doctor of philosophy. 

Both the Servi children remained where they studied, meeting and marrying Jewish spouses there. In essence, then, Servi’s son and daughter sacrificed a great deal of their Italian identity in order to thrive as Jewish citizens abroad.

Professor Sandro Servi has researched the
declining Jewish population in Florence.
Photo by Mary Claire Stewart

“It is very hard [as a Jew] in Italy, and you have to make compromises as such a small community when dealing with modern life” in this country, Bossi Rosenfeld said. “It is easier for younger people to just assume a different identity,” an Italian identity.

Servi said she had to fight to preserve her Jewish identity, awash as it was and is in the mainstream Italian culture.

“If I had not explored my [Jewish] heritage, we would have lost something,” said Servi, who is an active member of the orthodox Jewish community in Florence. “You have to fight to keep your heritage.”

“If people don’t put the synagogue and prayer at the center of their lives, there is a problem,” Viterbo said.Bossi Rosenfeld said that an increasing number of Jewish children are being sent to public schools. These children, therefore, are not getting religious teaching or training, and are subjected to “a mainstream way of thinking” each and every day. The K-through-12 Jewish school at Florence’s only synagogue closed about 20 years ago, though a Hebrew preschool still operates there during the week.

To save tradition

But Florence’s Jews haven’t given up by any means. Sarah Rubenstein, an expat member of the city’s reformed Jewish community, said she is making every effort to cultivate in her children their Jewish identity and participation in the Jewish community.

Her compromise was sacrificing some orthodox ways and traditions in order to better allow her children to navigate and negotiate their identities. Florence’s reformed congregation does not have service every Friday night, for example, nor does the family always keep kosher, even though Rubenstein said orthodox Jewish food practices are important. In addition, within the reformed Jewish community, men and women are allowed to sit together during services, unlike at the synagogue. Rubenstein said it would be interesting to see if the next generation sticks with these traditions as they get older.

Without a Jewish school, the pressure on Florence’s Jews to preserve and perpetuate their identity, traditions and way of life is that much greater. And the stakes are high. At just 700- to 800-strong, who will carry the Jews of Florence into the future?

“It would be very difficult for a small population like Florence to continue losing grandsons and granddaughters,” Sandro Servi said.

Chardonnay Copeland is a junior communications major from Shiloh, Ga. She is specializing in public relations.

Population information from Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld and Emanuele Viterbo.

Population information from - Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Ufficio of Statistica Associato dell'area Florentina


Population information from CIA World Factbook, Istituto Nazionale di Statistica.


Back to the Jews of Florence home page

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The Empty Cradles of Florence

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