The Jewish community in Naples wants to restore its 19th century synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery, but while plans for both projects were drawn up more than a year ago, funds are lacking, and Jewish community secretary Claudia Campagnano told JHE that both projects are now indefinitely on hold due to the Coronavirus emergency.
For one thing, she said, “the foundations and institutions we are working with, such as the Campania region, which showed interest in the restoration of both sites, are closed indefinitely because of the crisis.”
Italy, the country outside China worst-hit by the pandemic, has been in emergency lockdown since March 9. Since then, most bureaucratic offices have sent their employees to work from home, and most projects were put on standby.
The small but active Naples Jewish community is the main Jewish community in southern Italy.
Community president Lydia Schapirer told JHE that a restoration plan for the Old Jewish Cemetery has been ready for a year, drawn up by architect Sergio Salomone, a member of the local community. She said the grounds of the cemetery were overgrown with vegetation, and tombstones, mausoleums, a large commemorative plaque, and the neoclassic building at the cemetery entrance needed urgent repair.
The cemetery is closed to the public and will remain so until the restoration works are completed.
In January, regional councilor Alfonso Longobardi visited the cemetery along with a delegation from the Jewish community, stating that it “stands in a neglected and deteriorated condition, and an immediate maintenance action is needed.” He pledged support for clean-up and renovation work there.
Total cost of the planned work is estimated at more than €83,000, and in June 2019 a bank account was made available for those who wish to donate. At first only the members of the community, and the descendants of those buried in the cemetery, were approached, but Schapirer said fundraising is now open to the public, and the account will remain active even during the coronavirus emergency.
Located near the entrance to the city’s vast, monumental Poggioreale cemetery, the Old Jewish Cemetery was founded in 1865, four years after the official establishment in 1861 of the Naples Jewish community following the unification of Italy, and was enlarged to its present area with neighboring land purchased in 1875. It served as the burial place of the city’s Jewish community until 1963, when a separate new burial place was opened.
The Old Jewish Cemetery contains approximately 800 tombs, some of them grand structures. Among those buried there are prominent personalities who contributed to the history of Naples. They include Pacifico Ascarelli, deputy-mayor of the city in the 1880s; his son Giorgio, founder of the city’s famous soccer team; Mario Recanati, a pioneer of the Italian film industry and founder of the first cinema in Naples; and chemist Sansone Valobra (1799-1883), considered the inventor of matches.
The cemetery was damaged during an Allied bombing on July 17th, 1943 and was the target of several vandal attacks over the decades, including in 1990, when dozens of grave markers were damaged. The cemetery underwent some restoration in 2003, but little has been done to maintain the cemetery since then.
The synagogue of Naples, founded in 1864 with the support of the Rothschilds, is located on the first floor of the 18th century Palazzo Sessa. The Synagogues360 web site — where you can see a 360 degree panorama of the synagogue — describes it this way:
The prayer room is two rooms opened up with a large archway to make a single room. Ivory colored walls, gold cornicing and gray ceilings are punctuated by lovely, inset, tall, arched, paned windows with shutters.
The bimah is situated in the center of the prayer room, featuring the tivah (reader’s desk), simply carved of wood, with turned wood balustrades along the sides. A large, finely wrought, gilded, menorah rises from the front of the tivah. Oriental carpets lie on the wood floor in back and in front of the bimah. Against the wall at the front of the prayer room, on the red platform up a few steps, is the Aron Kodesh. It is simply carved in dark wood and surrounded by a dark wood arch. Twin tablets containing the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew sit atop the Aron Kodesh. A dark, turned wood balustrade runs along the sides and partially across the front of the platform. An elegant crystal and brass chandelier drops down between the Aron Kodesh and bimah. Upstairs the women’s gallery occupies the back half of the room. It is separated from the main sanctuary by a wood turned balustrade.
All the furniture, with the exception of the chairs, is believed to be older than the synagogue’s foundation, and come from Villa Rothschild (today known as Villa Pignatelli), where the first synagogue was established in the 1820s. The seats — which look like seats from a movie theatre — may have been a donation from Mario Recanati and date from the beginning of the XX century.
The restoration project was drawn up in 2018 by Sergio Salomone, the same architect who drew up the project for the Old Cemetery. The €200,000 project involves the restoration of the furniture (infested with woodworm), and the walls. The community is primarily seeking funds from foundations and public grants, but it’s also possible to contribute by making an individual donation.
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(Donations for either the cemetery or synagogue restoration can be made through the Paypal account of the Naples Jewish Community: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include “cemetery” or “synagogue” as the purpose of payment.)