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How the First Woman Rabbi in Italy Kept a Promise to Her Father

Rabbi Barbara Aiello told her father she would bring the Jewish faith back to his hometown.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello reads prayers in her synagogue in her story of faith

Rabbi Barbara Aiello sat in a rocking chair by the window in her house in Serrastretta, Italy. In the distance, she could see mountains and the surrounding fields and trees, but not much else. The town was in the middle of the countryside in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. The house she had been living in for the past year had been in her family for 440 years. Yet right now, she felt only a tenuous connection to Serrastretta, the place her father was born. More than anything, she felt isolated. And she was no closer to fulfilling a promise she had made to her father almost 30 years before.

It was 1975. Barbara was visiting Serrastretta with her father, Antonio Abramo Aiello. “I wanted to see it, because he talked about it all the time,” she said. “The air, the mountain water, the mushrooms, the tomatoes… He said it was a paradise. And it really is.” In fact, Barbara felt an immediate connection to the town. A thought flashed into her mind. I will live here one day.  

As father and daughter walked through the ancient streets, taking in the beautiful architecture and lush Calabrian landscape, they were struck by something that was missing: a synagogue.

Serrastretta was founded during the Inquisition by Jewish refugee families, Barbara’s family being one of the original founders. However, as people left Italy or were forced to convert to Catholicism—and often to hide their Jewish traditions—the town drifted away from its Jewish roots.

Antonio and Barbara were walking through the city he used to call home as a child, when he turned to his daughter. “You need to do something so that the people here can understand where they came from,” he said, “and understand what a treasure the Jewish religion is. You must bring it back to life from its dormant state.”

Barbara was 28 at the time and living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had no idea how she could reconnect the people of this town with their Jewish heritage.

In Pittsburgh, the Aiello family had only a faint link to their Jewish faith. “Growing up, we had only a marginal connection with a synagogue,” she said. “Many observances in the Jewish religion, like Shabbat on Friday night and lighting the candles, were just done at home. We were Bnei Anusim, people who had been forced to convert and hide their Jewish roots. And that would define my father until the war ended in Europe.” Then something happened that would change Antonio’s life forever.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello's father with his mother and sisters in their story of faith
      Barbara’s father with his mother and sisters (photo courtesy Barbara Aiello)

During WWII, Antonio worked for the Jewish resistance in Northern Italy. Because he spoke French, German and Italian, he helped coordinate the resistance movements in those countries via radio. He was behind enemy lines on D-Day. And he was with the American Army when they liberated the Buchewald concentration camp.

Barbara recalls her father talking about opening a barn structure in the camp to find 900 men, teenagers, and young boys inside. Most of them were dead. The soldiers did their best to save the others. They were not always successful. “My father told me that several boys died in his arms,” Barbara said.

As Antonio and the other soldiers gave the survivors food and water and bound their wounds, they noticed the survivors kept trying to hand them small objects. A small button, a ball of string, a pen that had been smuggled into the camp. Antonio realized they were gifts of gratitude. “At first my father didn’t want to accept these things,” Barbara said. “But then he realized it was a way of them affirming what was almost totally lost: their dignity. To be able to accept a gift from someone who had nothing left but their dignity… That really changed my father’s life.”

Antonio understood the importance of holding onto your culture— no matter what. He passed this idea down to Barbara. So, in Serrastretta, when her father asked her to bring the Jewish heritage back to his hometown, she did what any daughter would do. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “I promise.” She still had no idea how she would do it.

Years passed. Barbara got a master’s degree in psychology and created a successful puppetry program called “The Kids on the Block” to help children understand and appreciate differences and disabilities. She got married and started a family. Then she became more involved in her Jewish faith after the birth of her daughter. The family did Shabbat every night, attended Hebrew school, and her daughter had a bat mitzvah. Barbara was given the chance to become a Hebrew school teacher. She enjoyed her work and began to see it as more than a side job. She realized it might be her life’s calling.

One day, the rabbi of her Hebrew school asked if she had ever considered becoming a rabbi. She told him she thought she was too old now. “You are 42?” he said. “How are you going to feel when you’re 52 and you still haven’t done it?” Barbara knew he was right. She enrolled in rabbinical school. She was the oldest in her class; the other students called her “Rabbi Mama.” In June 1999, she was ordained as a rabbi— six months before her 52nd birthday.

Barbara worked for five years as a rabbi in the US. She loved her job, yet she knew she had unfinished business in Italy. Though her father had died in 1980, she still felt a spiritual pull to fulfill the promise she had made to him to reconnect the town of Serrastretta with its Jewish roots.

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“In Hebrew we say there’s a little light in the soul,” she said. “A neshama, a little flame that is always burning there. It provides light and guidance, but it also provides a bit of an irritation, saying, ‘You need to do something.’”

In 2004, she heard about an opportunity to work as a rabbi in Milan. Because she spoke Italian, she was the perfect fit. She was divorced and her daughter was grown, so now was the perfect time for a big life change. She moved to Milan, becoming the first female rabbi in Italy. She worked at the synagogue there for two years. One day, a couple approached her about performing a wedding ceremony. The man was Jewish, the woman was Italian-American. They told her they had started a foundation to affirm and support interfaith marriages and families. Barbara jumped at the chance and told them about her hopes for Serrastretta. The couple was thrilled to hear her story and gave her a small grant to finally start a synagogue in her father’s hometown.

However, moving to Serrastretta and connecting with the people there would prove to be a bigger challenge than Barbara imagined. She did not know how to approach people and ask about their Jewish roots.

“It’s a real challenge because there are many people who have no documentation of a Jewish matrilineal line,” she said. “None of the traditional information that someone might have to present themselves to be part of a Jewish community.” Barbara started talking with people in the town and asking them questions about their background.

“Do you think your family is Jewish?” she would ask. People would almost always respond, “no.”

As she tried her hardest to keep her promise, Barbara also dealt with loneliness. Remote Serrastretta was a far cry from her childhood in Pittsburgh, or her years in bustling Milan. Though it was beautiful— the very paradise her father had told her about—Serrastretta didn’t feel like home.

“Sometimes I called my daughter in Tennessee to complain about how isolated I felt,” Barbara said. “One day, she said, ‘Mom, you signed up to be a pioneer. It goes with the territory.’ I knew she was right.” If Barbara was going to be the first female rabbi in Italy and truly bring the Jewish faith back to this small town, she needed to get out and pioneer.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello in the courtyard of her synagogue sharing her story of faith
      Barbara in the courtyard of the synagogue (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Barbara thought about her father, a man who was not afraid to be an eccentric pioneer himself. Back in the ‘50s, he was a vegetarian, when few people even knew what that was. He would walk nine miles a day, rain or shine, hot or cold. When it got very cold out, her father would put on green tights and march through the freezing snow. Barbara remembers fellow students talking about the man who “walked around town dressed like Peter Pan.” She always pretended she had no idea who they were talking about. Her father couldn’t be dissuaded from his time outside. “He always said that we are our best spiritual selves when we are outdoors,” Barbara said.

So, Barbara started going for walks. “I walk every day, no matter what,” she said. “It is nourishing to one’s soul. People got used to seeing me early in the morning. I made a lot of friends that way.”

One of those friends was Samuel, a local man who lived with his mother who had Alzheimer’s. Sometimes when his mother would walk through town, she lost her way. Barbara and others in the friendly neighborhood often helped guide her back home to her son. When his mother died, Samuel invited Barbara to her funeral.

Barbara arrived at a familiar scene. All the mirrors and television sets in the home were covered in white sheets. There were low chairs set up for people to sit on. On a table near the door were cut up hard-boiled eggs for guests to eat when they came in. Barbara recognized all these things. They were Jewish mourning traditions. She asked Samuel if he knew the things he did for the funeral were Jewish. He had no idea. “Someone in the family once said we might be Jewish,” he told her. “But I always just assumed these were our family’s traditions.”

The encounter was an enlightening moment for Barbara. She realized she had simply been asking the wrong questions. After that day, she changed the way she asked people about their background. “What do you do when a baby is born? What do you do in the kitchen? What do you do for weddings?” Barbara would ask. So many people she spoke to were surprised to learn their traditions had Jewish roots. They tied a red string on a new baby’s crib because that is what the Jewish mystics would do. They did not ever eat meat and dairy in the same meal because it was kosher. They learned the strange dialect they traditionally spoke to bless a wedding had many Hebrew words. “There was no one who had a foot in both worlds, Hebrew and Italian, to let people know what they were actually saying,” said Barbara. That’s where she came in.

      Barbara has found happiness in Italy (photo courtesy Barbara Aiello)

Since then, Barbara has taught many people in Serrastretta—and all over Italy—about their Jewish heritage. Some are just curious to learn more about their past, others have since drawn closer to the Jewish faith and even attend the synagogue. “People come to the synagogue to discover their Jewish roots,” she said. “Some people are very involved in the Christian religion and are happy to know why some of their traditions are so different from the typical Italian way of doing things. We are open and welcoming to anyone who wants to just come and see, or join us, or learn a little bit about it.”

Barbara has also strengthened her ties with other religious leaders in Serrastretta. She has a strong relationship with the town’s Catholic priest and Evangelical pastor (both of whom have Jewish roots and were excited to learn about them from Barbara). They all worked together to teach a class about dealing with depression from a Biblical perspective. The priest and pastor covered the New Testament, Barbara handled the Old Testament. They officiate interfaith weddings together. “We try to be leaders in the community,” she said.

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During the pandemic, the synagogue was not able to hold a socially-distanced Hannukah service because it was too small. So, the priest opened the Catholic church, which was much larger, to the Jewish worshippers. The town held a beautiful Hannukah celebration; many Catholics came to watch. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, Serrastretta opened its doors to refugees, many of whom are Jewish.

Serrastretta has embraced the synagogue and Rabbi Barbara’s work. She says now the synagogue is full on Saturdays. She also says that every person that has approached her saying they wanted to know if they had Jewish roots has found them. She knows that is not a coincidence.

“I believe that in addition to physical DNA, we have emotional DNA,” she said. “I believe that we are imprinted with tradition, emotion, compassion, back through our ancestral line. Everyone wants and needs a spiritual connection to the God of their understanding.”

Barbara’s spiritual work has also helped her feel more spiritually at rest in Serrastretta. She continues to help people learn more about the Jewish religion through various avenues like surname research and even puppetry. Though her work is not done, she knows she is keeping her promise to her father. “I really feel like God directed me here,” she said. “I feel like I belong here.”

Nowadays, Barbara begins her day with a cup of Italian coffee in her rocking chair, looking out her window at the mountains. This is where she says her prayers every morning. She has recently added Psalm 121 to them. I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber… She is where she is meant to be. She knows God is there in Serrastretta with her.

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