Shuckling In A Modern Orthodox Synagogue

I do not know what time it is when Cantor Chaim Dovid Berson begins to sing the Amidah, or Shemoneh Esreh, which is the central part of the Jewish prayer. It is a prayer recited three times a day - morning, afternoon and evening - in Orthodox Jewish communities.

On this Friday evening, I attend Ma'ariv, the Jewish service recited after the sunset. I am in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, located at 125 E. 85th St. on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. No cell phones or other electronic devices are allowed here; that's why I don't know what time it is. This is a sacred place where the faithful share a moment of prayer with the community, and I understand that cell phones would distract people from this purpose.

Men and women sit separately in the synagogue, and I join the few women present. It is the first time I have ever visited a synagogue and the first time I have ever attended a service. I look around. The men are dressed in a jacket and tie and wear the kippah, a brimless cap worn as a sign of respect. The women are elegantly dressed. The rabbi is in the center of the room on the bima, a raised platform. He chants and the rest of the congregation sometimes joins the intonation of the hymn.

When the prayer intensifies, and voices rise, the faithful begin to rock. The hands either go down the body or hold the prayer book; the feet are stuck to the ground. Some go back and forth, some go from side to side, and some make a deep bow at the end of the swaying motion. This movement is called “shuckling,” which comes from the Yiddish word that means "to shake." It is a profoundly private moment between the faithful and their prayer, and each person takes as much time as they need to make this movement. 

While the faithful continue to shuckling, I observe them in silence. It almost seems like I can see the energy pouring out of their bodies and pervading them. Quickly, I realize that there is not a time when the worshippers are called to make that movement. The person begins to rock back and forth at their discretion, when they want to, and without needing someone to tell them to do so. Everything seems spontaneous and authentic.

Next to me, a girl named Mia is particularly focused in prayer as she moves her body back and forth, occasionally making a deep bow. At the end of the service, she tells me that that movement is her way of praying, and there is no precise explanation behind this gesture.

According to Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, the swinging represents the total immersion of the believer's energy in prayer. He also jokingly tells me that it is a movement-related only to Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, and that the Prophet Mohammed is said to have warned his adherents "not to do like Jews who move back and forth."

There is also another explanation of shuckling that can be found in the past, according to an article written in 2013 by Miriam Goldmann, curator of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s exhibition “The Whole Truth.” In the 12th century in Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi reported that often the Torah was read by many men at the same time. To ensure that the process was quick, they developed this movement whereby they would bend forward to see the book and then quickly retract to make room for the faithful afterward.

However, the service is now over. I gather my things and present myself to the rabbis. Meanwhile, the community members greet each other by saying "Shabbat Shalom," which is an invitation to enjoy a blessed Shabbat. I greet everyone by thanking them, and as a response, I receive a warm "Shabbat Shalom, Eleonora.”

Back to Italy: Jewish Italian Americans Apply for Citizenship after their Parents Fled

The Buchenwald concentration camp was the site of one of history’s greatest atrocities. In total, it imprisoned around 280,000 people and killed 56,000. That was until the remaining prisoners were liberated on April 11, 1945. The U.S. Army infiltrated the camp aiding those who were imprisoned including the Jews who were sent there from various countries. The living prisoners were thin and frail, sick from neglect and torture, their friends and relatives killed by Nazis. Many soldiers say that what they saw there was nothing short of traumatizing. Antonio Aiello, a Jewish Italian American whose family fled Italy in 1923 after Mussolini’s takeover, saw the devastation firsthand. He was an American soldier and Buchenwald liberator.

After the war, Antonio returned to the US and settled with the rest of the family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his daughter, Barbara, was born in 1947. Even though the fascist party was disbanded and anti-Semitic policies were removed from law, the family decided not to move back to their Italian village of Serrastretta. Antonio’s lived experiences informed the decision. He hoped that raising his daughter in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” would spare her from experiencing the continued horrors of the Holocaust, which he had seen with his own eyes at Buchenwald.

“Europe was devastated and just emotionally the soil is soaked with Jewish blood,” said Barbara, 76, who now lives in southern Italy. “Six million people killed, almost 2,000,000 children. People wanted to get out.”

Now, nearly 100 years after her father left, Barbara is seeking her Italian citizenship, along with so many others. Since 2019, the number of Italian Americans who have applied for dual citizenship has increased four-fold, some of whom are the descendants of those Jews who fled during the Fascist period. Italy allows those of Italian descent who meet a certain set of rules to apply for citizenship in a process known as Jure Sanguinis (through ancestry), but that process is far from easy. It takes years of waiting and requires significant effort and thousands of dollars, which discourages many along the way. Regardless, some Jewish Italian Americans are determined to win back what they believe is rightfully theirs, and what the Italian government owes them after the country drove their parents out with hateful anti-Semitic policies and violence. After their parents fought for American citizenship, they fight for Italian citizenship.

Given Italy’s past, it may come as a surprise that Italian Jews like Barbara are looking to gain Italian citizenship. Yet research shows that past atrocities rarely play a factor in whether someone migrates to a country. Shira Klein, a professor at Chapman University and author of the book “Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism,” says that as long as the government does not enshrine anti-Semitism or racism into law, most people will not view it as a reason to avoid a country. Rather, the biggest factors are opportunities to make money or reunite with family.

As far as World War II impacting current sentiments toward Italy, Klein said, “I just don’t think that those kinds of considerations motivate anyone today.” She continued, “Italian Jews tend to be proud of their origin and tend to consider Italy to be a good country.”

Barbara currently lives in Calabria, a region in southern Italy, where she serves as the only rabbi in the small village of Serrastretta. She is famous among the Italian-Jewish community as being both the first female rabbi and the first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She moved there 19 years ago, just five years after completing her rabbi schooling at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York at 51 years old. Soon after, she opened the first active synagogue in the Calabria region since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

A visit to Serrastretta with her father, Antonio, in 1975 kindled her desire to live there, although she was not yet a Rabbi and was unsure what she would do for work there. Her family has owned the home that she currently lives in for around 450 years. This aligns with the time period in which her ancestors fled Spain to escape the Inquisition, which took place between 1478 and 1834. They became one of five founding families of the village. In southern Italy, Judaism was not as accepted as it was in the North, though. Much of southern Italy, including Sicily, was a Spanish territory at the time, meaning Jews could not openly practice their faith.

When she isn’t delivering sermons to the worshipers in town, Barbara helps Italians around the world, who believe they may have Jewish ancestry, uncover their roots. To accomplish this, she uses surname research and analysis of how familial traditions align with Jewish traditions, many of which were disguised for protection during the period of the Spanish Inquisition and again during the Holocaust. In the mountains of Calabria, she hears Mediterranean Shofars echo through the valleys on New Year’s Day, rather than the Jewish New Year, a prime example of a Jewish tradition altered to oblige the country’s Catholic majority, she says. Others light candles on Friday nights, just as the Aiello family does but they believe it to be part of their Catholic faith.

In part, this work is an effort to revive the Jewish communities of Italy, where the population is dwindling because of past atrocities toward them by the government. Italy has a long and rich Judaic tradition that isn’t widely known among non-Jews and people have practiced Judaism in Italy since the time of the Roman Empire. In the late 1400s Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal settled there. Ashkenazi Jews who fled France in the Middle Ages made lives there, as well.

Citizenship Logistics

The reason people apply for Italian citizenship varies, but many applicants blame American politics and the government’s response to the pandemic, and want to escape the United States, or at least have a backup plan. This reasoning is not exclusive to Jewish Italian Americans. U.S. politics seem to be the primary driving factor behind the increase in applications, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or why their family left Italy in the first place, according to Italian citizenship lawyer Marco Permunian.

Business is booming for Marco. Since 2020, he says his law firm has seen about 100 new clients each month. “We get clients from both sides of the political spectrum, but around the presidential elections of 2020, they started to feel like they wanted to have a second option,” he said.

Some also say they want the benefits one gains by becoming an Italian citizen. Those who receive Italian citizenship become citizens of the European Union, as well. From there, they can then apply for an Italian passport which grants them the right to work and live in any EU country. Additionally, all citizens are entitled to universal healthcare and affordable college.

To complete the application process, one must provide the Italian consulate with family documents such as the parental and grandparental birth, death, marriage, and naturalization certificates to prove Italian descent. Even though Barbara lives in Italy and speaks fluent Italian, she found it difficult to gather all of these documents. Nonetheless, she has taken the time to compile each item with the help of a lawyer in Italy. When put together the papers are about as thick as a college textbook, some of them dating as far back as the 1880s, when her grandparents were born.

“Italian bureaucracy is complicated on a good day, and then when you're dealing with citizenship, it is particularly difficult,” she said.

Applicants must also book an appointment with the Italian consulate two to three years in advance, says Connecticut-based Italian citizenship attorney, Lorenzo Agnoloni. After their meeting, comes more waiting: up to six months to hear if dual-citizenship status is approved. Barbara booked her appointment with the help of her lawyer in May 2020 but will not be seen until March 10, 2024. Legally, the consulate is required to give an appointment within three years of when an applicant requests it, but for Barbara, the consulate did not abide by this. She is unsure why.“There are a lot of workarounds,” she said. “A lot of false starts.”

Barbara and her lawyer attempted to appeal the distant court date, citing the condition of her health as a 74-year-old cancer survivor. Barbara gathered letters from her local doctor in Italy and the doctor who treated her for cancer in the United States. Still, the government refused to move her appointment up. Barbara felt defeated by this and grew concerned that she would not live to see the day when she becomes an Italian citizen. “If I die, will you continue the process for my daughter?” she asked her lawyer. “Of course,” was his reply.

Although Barbara is married to an Italian citizen and could obtain her citizenship more easily by applying through marriage or through residency since she has lived there for nearly two decades, she insists upon applying by descent because of the principle. She strongly believes in the creation of a law of Italian Jewish return. Spain and Portugal enacted such laws for descendants of the Jews exiled during the Inquisition, formally acknowledging the harm this caused generations and offering citizenship as a form of reparations. She wrote an article for The Times of Israel about this opinion and cited a study that found that, as of October 2019, as many as 153,767 descendants of Sephardic Jews in Spain, and later 62,000 in Portugal, took advantage of the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Since then, though, many of those who have applied in Spain and Portugal received notification that the government rejected their applications. Since writing her piece for The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Barbara has become saddened by how the Law of Return has taken shape in Spain. She describes the mass rejection of applications as a second betrayal from the country and although she feels passionate about an Italian Law of Return coming to fruition; she fears that if the Italian government implements a Law of Return in Italy, they will quickly begin to reject Jews in the same way. For this reason Barbara is hesitant to advocate openly for such a law. Not only that, but because Barbara is the sole rabbi in the village, she works closely with each mayor and tries to avoid getting involved in politics for this reason. She wants to be agreeable.

The atrocities committed by Spain and Portugal took place over 500 years ago, whereas the Holocaust and Fascism are far more recent. As of the summer of 2021, Germany also offers those who lost citizenship during the Holocaust and their descendants the opportunity to apply for German citizenship and is seemingly more lenient in terms of the applications they accept. Regardless, Italy has not followed Germany’s example in implementing such a law.

Jews are not the only people who face barriers when trying to claim citizenship in Italy. Descendants of Black American soldiers and white Italian women, as well as other people of color born in Italy, face similar blocks in getting their citizenship. Being born in Italy to a non-Italian father prior to 1948 meant that a child did not receive Italian citizenship if the father acknowledged ‌the child was his. If, on the other hand, the child was given up for adoption, they were sometimes granted citizenship.

Additionally, some of the now-grown children in former Italian colonies such as Eritrea, who previously did not have citizenship, have banded together to advocate for themselves. Even though the parents of these mixed-race children gave them up for adoption, the Italian government did not view them as citizens as they did the mixed-race children from Italy, because these children were born in Italian colonies. As a group, they have not seen much success, but some individuals have had their applications accepted.


Before the Second World War, Italy’s Jewish population stood at 50,000. When Benito Mussolini initially took control as prime minister in 1922, many Italian Jews willingly joined the Fascist Party in an attempt to assimilate. Over the next 13 years, however, anti-Semitic ideology spread in Germany and across Europe, eventually resulting in German-born Jews losing their citizenship in 1935. In Italy, most Jews kept their citizenship but lost key civil rights in 1938; the government banned them from teaching at colleges, owning radios, using public libraries, and more. Jews who had immigrated to Italy after 1919 had their citizenship revoked and were ordered to leave within the year.

Many of the Jews who remained were sent to concentration camps. Stella Levi, a Jewish woman from Rhodes, a Mediterranean island claimed by Italy in 1912, was one of those deported. They stripped Stella, now 99, and other Jewish people of the right to go to school in 1938 and later sent her to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp, along with the rest of her family, in 1944. She and her siblings survived, but her parents and grandparents did not. Eventually, she moved to New York City and became a U.S. citizen. At the time, she was unaware that she would lose her Italian citizenship by becoming an American, as Italy did not allow dual citizenship until 1998. With the help of Natalia Indrimi, the executive director of Il Centro Primo Levi, she received reparations from the Italian government. Stella serves on the board there and works with Natalia and other board members to preserve Jewish-Italian history.

By the time the war ended, approximately 6,000 Jews had fled Italy, 2,000 of them to the U.S. Of the 44,000 Jews who didn’t flee, an estimated 8,000 were killed in the Holocaust. Others converted to Catholicism or claimed that they did before the government’s 1919 cut-off date, the year Mussolini and his followers burned down the offices of a socialist newspaper in Milan and seized control of the country. Today, the population of Jews in Italy is around 30,000, most concentrated in Milan and Rome, but with some communities in the south, such as Barbara’s.

On March 10, 1955, Italy enacted The Terracini Law, Law No. 96, which gave a lifelong pension to anyone who was politically or racially persecuted, and any surviving relatives they might have. Italian Jews fell into the politically persecuted category and therefore could apply if they had experienced such persecution if they were Italian citizens. The Terracini law was Italy’s form of reparations, but the qualifications were exclusionary and difficult to prove. This law is still in place today, granting Jews and other victims of persecution 430 euros each month (about $511) if they are one of the few of whom saw their application accepted.

From 1970 to 1971, Italy also passed laws that provided compensation to war victims, from war-related organizations that received government funding. Finally, in 1996, Italy promised reparations to Jews who faced persecution under fascism but demanded that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities pay the $327,000 sum, essentially demanding that Jewish people pay themselves reparations. This caused quite the uproar, with news outlets around the world covering the demand.

Germany has handled reparations differently. Similar to how the country offers citizenship to those who fled and their descendants, they also financially compensate some individuals and pay Israel for taking in many of the victims. As of 2015, Johns Hopkins University estimated that the German government pays 1.1 billion euros ($1.25 billion) in reparations annually.

Remembrance and Ambivalent Feelings

On January 27, Il Centro Primo Levi held its annual Ceremony of the Reading of the Names to honor the Italian victims of Fascism and Nazism. The day marks the 77th anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, freeing the remaining 7000 imprisoned people and the living members of Stella’s family. Giorno della Memoria as it’s called in Italian, became a national holiday in the year 2000 and was later recognized by the United Nations in 2005. Outside of the Consulate General of Italy on the Upper East Side in New York City, around 20 people gathered to read off the names of the deportees from Italy and the Italian territories. Some groups come and go at various times. The ceremony lasted around five hours, as participants took turns solemnly reading the names. Natalia read in alphabetical order, hours into the ceremony.

Alberto Segre,

Alito Segre,

Anna Segre,

Annetta Segre,

Atillio Segre,”

These were just a few of the Italian Jews who were deported to concentration camps. Some lived, and some did not. Some returned to Italy, and some fled to other countries like the United States or Israel. Regardless of the course of their lives beyond the time of the Holocaust, their names are read at the consulate every year, no matter the weather.

Many Italian American Jews engage with Il Centro Primo Levi. They’ve formed a tight-knit community with which they share their family stories and seek guidance. Lloyd Levi, 76, is a Jewish Italian American who is involved with the center. Before she died, his mother was great friends with Stella Levi. Just as Natalia assisted Stella in her battle for reparations from the Italian government, it was she who gave Lloyd hope he could obtain citizenship.

Lloyd’s family fled Italy in 1939 after his mother carried out an elaborate scheme. To fund their escape, Fanny Levi paid visits to a fictitious aunt in France, adorned with jewels and furs, as well as other discreetly transported goods, which she then sold for far less than their true value. She would then return home to Milan’s city center in much less extravagant clothing. The family was quite affluent because Lloyd’s father, Davide, was a successful businessman. Even so, the fascist Italian government strictly limited the movement of money outside the country, so Fanny maintained these visits to her “aunt” for several years until she saved enough money to fund the family’s escape to France and then finally the United States.

Now, 84 years later, all her children have returned to Italy, except one, Lloyd. He is the youngest and only American-born child of Davide and Fanny, who had two sons and a daughter in Italy before fleeing to the United States. His two brothers received citizenship and raised their families as Italian. Today, one brother runs the antique business that the family has owned for generations and lives in the family homestead. 3,940 miles away, Lloyd, who lives in Connecticut, is the only one of his siblings who raised a family in the United States, although he identifies as Italian.

“I think the expression is, you feel not part of your own society,” he said. “I feel a stronger connection to Italy than I do the United States.”

Lloyd’s hopes, however, were stymied for years by the endless red tape of a citizenship application, complicated by his parent’s histories. His father, Davide, although born in Venice, could not be an Italian citizen because his father was Greek, while Fanny lost her citizenship because of law 555/1912, which stated: “an Italian woman who marries a foreigner loses her Italian citizenship, provided that she acquires automatically the citizenship of her husband’s country.” At the time, only men passed their citizenship to their children.

In the past, if someone attempted to claim citizenship by descent on their mother’s side, they must have been born after January 1, 1948, the year that women obtained the right to vote in Italy. Recently, though, Lloyd learned that Italy now allows people to claim citizenship under their mother if they petition the court. Even though the law itself has not changed, lawyer Marco Permunian says that the court grants citizenship in every case he has seen, which Natalia corroborated.

“I think this is going towards a retroactive change of the law,'' she predicted. “I am aware of about a dozen Supreme Court cases, all of which resulted in the granting of citizenship.” Since 2009, hundreds of these cases have been filed in the court of Rome, says Marco. In that year, the court decided that Italian constitutional laws must be applied retroactively, including laws that made women equal to men in society.

The Italian consulate strictly enforces other rules without room to negotiate, such as the requirement that ancestors not naturalize in another country before June 14, 1912. To better understand these rules and whether a prospective applicant may qualify, many hire lawyers or companies who specialize in Italian citizenship for Americans of Italian descent.

Instead of a lawyer, Lloyd consults with Natalia, who informed him of the option to petition the court, in the first place. Before Natalia told him about this Lloyd had essentially given up hope that he would ever be an Italian citizen and join his family. Now that there is a chance he can become an Italian citizen, he finds himself relieved given the recent uproar in the United States.

“Do I see myself fleeing? I see the possibility,” he said. “I think that if Trump were re-elected, I would see the writing on the wall as my father did in 1939.”

Lloyd believes that the problem lies with those who commit blind loyalty to politicians, and he does not stop short of comparing loyalty to Trump with loyalty to Hitler. Instead of blaming Jews this time, he says, people now blame Muslims.

“It's not political,” Lloyd said, “It's cultural, and it scares the hell outta me.”

After fleeing to the United States, Fanny Levi felt resentment towards Europe. Although her family spoke Italian at home and held onto much of their culture, it upset her when Lloyd went to Austria in 1963 to attend school there. While he was abroad, she would not accept his mail or take his calls. Fanny’s disdain for Italy eventually led to the collapse of her marriage. Davide wanted to go back, and she did not, so they divorced. He returned to Milan and Fanny remained in New York with Lloyd.

This sort of division is not uncommon for Italian Jews who left Italy. After the war, some did wish to resume their lives there, while others found it far too painful even to visit. Alexander Stille, the author of the book “Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Families Under Fascism” and a descendant of Italian-Jews who fled Italy, says there was an ambivalence among Italian-Jews living in the United States, those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to return. Still, many of those who are the children or grandchildren of the Jewish Italian’s who fled to the United States and remained here are not so hesitant to move back to Italy or obtain dual citizenship. Alexander himself is strongly considering it, as are some of the children of the families he wrote about in his book.

Anti-Semitism Today

Italian Fascism is a newly popular topic of discussion in recent years. The traditional account claims that everyday Italians never perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism and did all they could to aid Jews. However, new scholarship disputes this, arguing that Italian Jews faced as much anti-Semitic persecution from their neighbors as they did from the government and Mussolini. Neighbors reported neighbors, just as they did in Germany. Furthermore, the 1938 racial laws pressured many Jews to either convert or flee.

Silvana Patriarca, a professor of Italian Studies at Fordham University, compares the actions of Italy and Germany after the war. She says as Germany was arresting and trying its former Nazi leaders between Nov 20, 1945, and Oct 1, 1946, Italy only disbanded the fascist party and ended its racial laws. Those who played a role in fascist leadership faced no consequences, therefore the ideology remains strong. Former members of the Fascist Party created Il Movimento Sociale Italiano, or the Italian Social Movement. The party disbanded in 1995 but existed for nearly 50 years after the fall of the Fascist Party.

“There was no Italian Nuremberg,” she said. “There was an amnesty that provided, essentially, an easy way out for a lot of people.”

Although fascist ideals are arguably less common in Italy today, they do still exist. Just this past October, Forza Nuova (meaning New Force), a neo-fascist group, arranged an anti-vaccine protest, which ultimately broke into a riot. This gathering and subsequent riot violated Italy’s constitution, which strictly forbids reorganization of fascist groups in any form, but especially when violence is used to push anti-democratic agendas. Even so, these groups still exist and have not faced legal repercussions from the Italian government.

Anti-Semitism is not gone either. Just like Fascism, it lingers all these years later. In 2019, a Holocaust survivor and senator for life, Liliana Segre, 91, received hundreds of anti-Semitic and hateful messages on social media. She proposed creating a new parliamentary committee that would combat anti-Semitism and racism. The motion passed, but Italy’s right-wing party did not vote for it. In response to this Michelle Bachelet, a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered a statement to the Italian senate.

“There have been multiple incidents of hate speech and serious hate crimes against both Italians and non-nationals of many origins in recent years,” she said. “The ‘Map of Intolerance’ study, which analyzed some 800,000 tweets last year in Italy, exposed the online targeting of women, Muslims, people with disabilities, Jews, LGBTI people and migrants.”

More recent manifestations of anti-Semitism go beyond verbal attacks. For example, physical violence has been seen. On January 26th, a 12-year-old Jewish boy from the Livorno region in northern Italy said that a group of teenagers attacked him. His parents report ‌the group kicked him, hit his head, and called him anti-Semitic slurs. The Milan-based Center of Contemporary Jewish Documents’ Observatory on Anti-Jewish Prejudice compiled a database which found that anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise for the past six years in Italy.

Experts say Italy has done fairly little to compensate Jews for the stains of the past and evidently anti-Semitic violence still occurs from time to time. Stanislao Pugliese is an author and professor of Italian studies and fascism. He says the government should do all it can to acknowledge the history of Jewish Italian and everything the fascist regime put them through, but he worries that any acknowledgement would be purely symbolic and inspire little change. Just like Barbara, Stanislao describes Italy as heavily bureaucratic.

“It takes 20 years to decide on something,” he said. “If they’re dependent on the court, they won’t get much.”

Regardless, those who are eligible to receive citizenship by descent jump at the opportunity to do so. Despite Barbara Aiello’s hopes for a Law of Return for those expelled during the Spanish Inquisition (when parts of Italy were Spanish territory) and during the fascist period, there is no evidence that such a thing will be implemented as a form of reparations for the horrors her parents’ generation endured. In the meantime, all she and other Jewish Italian Americans can do is apply through Jure Sanguinis. The road to citizenship is long and it will be years before Jewish Italian Americans are even presented the opportunity to meet with the consulate.

A Renewed Connection on the Upper West Side

Every Sunday since the pandemic began Hope West Side hosts two services. The evangelical Christian congregation rents the sanctuary of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on West 86th Street and Central Park West. Inside you won’t see a cross, but you will see Jewish symbols in the colorful stained-glass windows. Under every seat are Shabbat prayer books instead of Christian Bibles. Hope West Side is a newer congregation, only founded in 2018. Because the Society for the Advancement of Judaism holds its services on Saturdays, it allows Hope West Side to have the space on Sundays. When the pandemic hit, though, the building went dark and both the Jewish and the Christian congregations were homeless. 

The services went online, starting out with pre-recorded live streams and moving on to Zoom meetings, but some of those involved with the church felt this deprived them of a sense of community within the church. Christina Jackson serves as the communications director and tries to engage members during the year of virtual worship. 

“I think it’s hard because part of the reason why I come to church at least is for the community,” Jackson said. “We tried our best to have the chat box going on the YouTube Live Stream and reach out to people we were already connected with, but for new people, it was really hard.”

Finally, last June, after 14 months, the church was able to hold services in person, while also streaming to the web, but not without challenges. The church had to purchase and set up cameras, WIFI and projectors. In the back of the worship space a large camera manned by volunteers captures the worship music, the sermon and then the worship music again, but of course it misses the connection between worshipers before and after the services. Those who did attend in person, didn’t fully get that connection either.

The Society for the Advancement of Judaism lowered the number of people permitted in the building at any given time, to ensure proper social distancing requirements were met. Hope West Side switched from holding one service, as they did before the pandemic, to two services. This way, half of the churchgoers would attend each one, with around 30 at each. This worked for a while, but once the Society for the Advancement of Judaism lifted that restriction, Pastor Mike Park enthusiastically announced that the congregation would return to one service. This announcement was met with cheers from the churchgoers.

“I realize there’s a couple things that we’ve lost in having two services,” Park said. “We are never in the same room together.” 

On February 27th, Hope West Side held their first in-person singular service since the beginning of March 2020. Nearly every seat was filled, with around 70 people in attendance, all wearing the name tags given to them at the door when they completed their Covid-19 screenings. Before and after the service people laughed and talked. They poured and sipped on coffee provided in the lobby. This 11 AM service represented a return to normalcy after nearly two years navigating Covid-safe services.

Along with this return, came the announcement of the first church retreat in two years. Taylor Fagins is the community life coordinator at the church and was excited to inform everyone of the trip upstate.

“It’s gonna be amazing, and I say that because I planned it,” he said to the congregation with an enthusiastic smile. This was met with laughter. “There’s gonna be hiking, board games, there might be some karaoke.” 

Still, the church does take precautions to keep everyone safe, such as required masking and then health screenings at the door. They look forward to a time when they won’t have to do these things anymore. 

“Maybe somewhere down the line we can unmask,” said Christina Jackson. “I think we are just playing it by ear and just doing what the whole city is doing: trying to keep everyone safe.”

Meeting the Shabbat Bride

As the sun set on Friday evening, the congregation at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue sat at least six feet apart from each other, indicating a sign of the pandemic that’s engulfed the world for the past two years. The service began with six songs led by Cantor Daniel Singer, from the Kabbalat Shabbat, one to symbolize each day of the preceding week leading up to this service. 

As the songs continued, everyone in attendance remained standing, facing the front of the Synagogue, where the Torah rests and the Cantor stands. Some participants clap to the beat of the song. Others gently rock back and forth. Some do a combination of both. Each song flows from one into another, with no break. The melodies merge from one to the next, with Cantor Singer saying which page to turn to in between the first verse of the songs. 

On the seventh song, the service changes unexpectedly and without warning. 

With no prompting from the cantor, everyone silently turns towards the back of the synagogue before they start singing, with no prompting from the Cantor. They all know what to do. Next steps and movements are all ingrained, as they slowly turn around while singing. The flow of the service up until this point could be analogized with the beginning of a traditional Western wedding. There is a prelude of songs, where everyone faces the front, and then when it is time for the bride to make her grand entrance, the crowd faces her. Each person smiles as they sing the seventh song, welcoming the long-awaited day of rest as if it were a young woman walking down the aisle. 

Instead of focusing on the memorial plaques on the rear wall, all eyes are on the main door of the synagogue. For the remainder of the song, the door is the main focus. The clapping and rhythmic movement ceases, as they usher in the true beginning of Shabbat. 

A small red light turns on next to some names on the memorial back wall. The lights symbolize an anniversary of death. But, death is not the focus in this ritual. Instead, the focus is the ultimate symbol of love and life, marriage. 

In this case, the bride is the Shabbos everyone is welcoming. The lyrics of the song translate in English to, “Beloved, come to meet the bride; beloved come to great Shabbat.” 

Singer explained that this tradition comes from the Jewish Mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. Welcoming Shabbat as a bride, he said, “is a metaphor for the time of redemption.” The Hebrew, “Boi Kallah,” means “come my beloved.” One day, the goal is to reach a day when the Messiah will come, and everyone will be peace. 

“We pray for a day when we’ll be able to have Shabbat rest all the time,” Singer said. 

Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Kathleen Shriver

Kerry Brodie teaches her students to bake Challah, a ceremonial Jewish bread. (Photo/Emma’s Torch)

Some of the best views of New York’s Statue of Liberty are from a waterside park in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. From there, visitors can see the broken shackles at Lady Liberty’s feet, the golden fire raging from her copper torch, and the words to “The New Colossus,” the sonnet at her pedestal.

Just a few blocks from New York’s Statue of Liberty, a nonprofit restaurant and school labors to keep the spirit of Lady Liberty alive. It is known as Emma’s Torch, a tribute to Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet whose verse -- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe” – decorates Liberty’s pedestal. Founded by Kerry Brodie, Emma’s Torch aims to empower refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of human trafficking through culinary education.

When launching the nonprofit, 27 year old Brodie, thought back to her highschool -- Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School -- where she learned about Jewish leaders. She says Lazarus was one of the “unsung female heroes of Jewish history” whose work always stuck with her.

“I felt like Emma never got to see what her poem would become,” Brodie said. “ So my hope is that Emma's Torch will also be able to create that sort of lasting legacy and those ripple effects of change as well.”

In the Jewish tradition, when speaking of a righteous deceased person, many will say Z"l (pronounced zal), which is an abbreviation for Zikronam L'bracha. This literally means “may their memory be for a blessing.” “I think this definitely applies to how we are trying to honor Emma's legacy and memory. We are working in her memory,” Brodie says.

While for many restaurants, reopening after the pandemic means staffing up, adding tables, expanding menus, opening the doors earlier and closing them later, for Brodie, it means reprioritizing. It means reconsidering the purpose of Emma’s Torch and drawing from her past and, as it turns out, her faith.

Since its founding in 2017, Emma’s Torch has become a beacon of hope for hundreds. The nonprofit offers a full-time paid training program, during which students receive instruction, mentorship, and work experience, while also developing English conversation skills and other “soft skills” such as resume development and computer literacy.

In 2020, Brodie was looking forward to formalizing and publishing her curriculum and opening new locations around the country.

“2020 was supposed to be the year of stability,” she said. Instead, she got a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and a racial reckoning.

While the pandemic threatened the lives and livelihoods of everyone, the toll it took on those working in the restaurant industry was especially dire. To make matters even worse, Emma’s Torch doubled as a training program for immigrant communities, some of the country’s most vulnerable. Even so, Brodie had faith.

Brodie’s Jewish faith has gotten her family through a profoundly difficult past. “My great grandparents are among the only people from their families, to survive the Holocaust,” she said.
She recalled that several years ago she joined her grandfather on a trip to Lithuania, where many members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. “Standing there was just such an eye-opening experience of what happens when we don't remember that our neighbors are not that different to us, and that's just always stuck with me,” she said.

Ever since this experience, Brodie has been particularly motivated by the Jewish practice of welcoming the stranger. A commandment that is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the scripture reminds Jews that they once “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). “We hope to live up to this commandment and imperative in our work.” At the same time, Brodie doesn’t see these values as exclusive to Judaism.

She loves learning from her students how these same values can come from different life experiences, including other religious traditions.

“At Emma’s Torch, a lot of times either our students come from very strong backgrounds of faith, or are supported and have found friends through their religious community, whether that be a church or a synagogue or mosque,” she said. “Faith in general can be such a powerful tool to bring people together.”

These universal values of unity and welcome have motivated every step of Brodie’s career. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Brodie hoped to effect change through public policy.

Following two years of policy work at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, she became the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, a nongovernmental agency based in Washington D.C., where she publicized the organization’s international work. At the same time, she spent her free time meeting with women who inspired her next endeavor.

“I started volunteering at a homeless shelter and was really struck by the conversations about food that I would have with the women at the shelter,” she said.

Brodie wanted to cook with the women. She grew up learning to cook different dishes that connected her to her family’s religious and cultural history and inspired her pride in that history. She wanted to find a way to use food to do more than just feed these women. She wanted food to empower them, too.

“Recipes are not simply a list of ingredients. Each is wrapped in memories,” she said. “Cooking simultaneously defines and transcends our communities.”

Kerry Brodie at 3-years-old after helping her grandmother make milchika. (Photo/Kerry Brodie)

Growing up, Brodie would visit her grandparents in South Africa, where they had found refuge during World War II. Both of Brodie’s parents were raised in South Africa and her grandparents still live there today. And during her earliest visits to her grandparents, Brodie learned to cook.

“My grandmother makes the most incredible milchika which are basically South African cinnamon buns. One of my earliest cooking memories is helping her make these.” While many American Jews have foods like bagels-and-lox to break their fasts on the Jewish High Holidays, South African Jews break their fast with milchika–a kind of cinnamon bun. Dishes like milkchika and the religious traditions around sharing them with family and friends has always inspired Brodie to see food as a powerful element in strengthening her faith and in enforcing a shared sense of identity amongst her community of faith.

For this reason, she encourages her students to embrace and celebrate their origins and home countries when they cook.

“Food helps our students understand that they’re not victims and that their work is valuable,” she says. Brodie says that she wants her students to see that each of their unique understandings of flavor and culture can actually enhance our communities and inspire our kitchens.

Inspired by her love of food and her conversations with the women at the homeless shelter, Brodie started reading about the restaurant industry. She read about widening labor gaps and about restaurants struggling to find talent to build out their kitchens.In May of 2016, Brodie left the HRC and began studying at the Institute of Culinary Education.

When she wasn’t learning to cook, Brodie was working to build out the organization of her dreams: a restaurant that would provide opportunities for the most vulnerable, a restaurant that would tell stories through its food.

She wanted to provide jobs for those who were left out. She wanted to bring people of different backgrounds and life experiences together in a space that felt comfortable to all of them; in a space where they could connect and realize that they could, in fact, work together. That space was the kitchen. And after graduating from culinary school in June of 2017, Brodie launched her first pilot program at Emma’s Torch.

Emma’s Torch began offering a free 12-week apprenticeship program with up to 500 hours of culinary and professional training. What’s more, students were paid to participate, allowing them to train full-time and cover expenses.

By the end of 2019, over 100 students had graduated from the program with professional culinary skills, English proficiency, and a community of support. Ninety-seven percent of the graduates had been placed in culinary jobs around the city.

And then, the pandemic hit. Like most people working in the hospitality industry in New York, many alumni were laid off or furloughed and Brodie was forced to close her training program and restaurant. She closed the doors of her restaurant and sent her students and staff home. But Brodie didn’t give up.

She turned her faith into action. The organization remained stable due to support from donors and a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Meanwhile, the Emma’s Torch staff began volunteering to work with students and alumni online. They hosted online cooking classes while also helping students and alumni apply for unemployment benefits. And Brodie innovated, working with old and new partners on her “Culinary Council” to restructure the business in response to the shifting industry.

After six months of solely online programming, Emma’s Torch reopened in October of 2020 with a three track program including the original culinary program in addition to two new tracks for alumni: the first being a community building program and the second a management-level leadership development fellowship for select program graduates.

Ruslan Abdraimov, a graduate of Emma’s Torch, participated in the fellowship. Abdraimov arrived in New York from Russia in 2016 with just $216 in his pocket and no understanding of the English language. Fleeing cultural and political persecution, he left everyone and everything he knew behind – for a chance to start over in America.

Winter’s Heat, cooked by Abdraimov on his graduation night.(Photo/Ruslan Abdraimov)

He knew one person in New York, who loaned him his sofa and told him about Emma’s Torch. Abdrainmov applied to the pilot program in 2017 and became a student in the first graduating cohort at Emma’s Torch.

Abdraimov remembers making 12 dishes on his graduation night. “I can’t choose a favorite,” he laughs. “It’s like asking [me] to pick [a] favorite child.”

But four of the dishes made him especially proud – a combination he calls “Winter’s Heat.” The roasted buckwheat katah, celery potato mash, sauerkraut stir fried with German sausage, and deep fried mushroom stuffed meatballs use all the vegetables available during winters in Russia. “Winters in a large part of Russia are long and cold. And you have to eat a lot to keep yourself warm,” he says with a smile.

Abdraimov describes his experience at Emma’s Torch as more than just an education in the culinary arts.“You know, it’s one thing when you hear about different countries and religions, but the other thing is, when you actually have a chance to meet that person and spend some time in a kitchen with that person, you know, and be around them every day, like for eight to 10 hours a day,” he said, nodding his head. “You learn a lot. And behind all that history, it’s something universal -- things like kindness, friendship.”

As Brodie shifts her focus to the students and alumni, the flames of Lady Liberty’s fire continue to burn at Emma’s Torch, which has transformed into a take-out cafe. As it was before the pandemic, the menu remains “New American cuisine,” cooked by New Americans.