Shavei Israel Holds First-Ever Chanukah Candle-Lighting Ceremony at Infamous Inquisition Prison in Palermo, Sicily

Palermo, Sicily, December 5, 2013 –Shavei Israel organized an historic Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony yesterday in the infamous Steri Palace Prison in Palermo Sicily, which served as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1601-1782. The ceremony, the first of its kind, was led by Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the “Bnei Anousim” (also known as Marranos, or Crypto-Jews) community in southern Italy and Sicily. Participants at the ceremony included Prof. Roberto La galla, the dean of the university of Palermo, Mr. Roberto Jarach, the vice president of the UCEI union of Italian Jewish community, and around one hundred Bnei Anousim from the Palermo area.


“Centuries after the Steri Palace Prison was used to try and extinguish the light of Israel, we came here to show that the flame of Judaism continues to burn,” said Shavei Israel Founder and Chairman Michael Freund. “For 200 years, Jews were tortured within the palace’s walls, and many were then burned at the stake by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism”, he said, adding that, “in the place where the darkness of the Inquisition once predominated, the flicker of our Chanukah candles now prevails.”  Freund also highlighted the fact that the prison’s dungeon cells are notable for the graffiti that still stains their walls; two inscriptions are written in Hebrew letters.


The idea for the event originated when Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri during a 3-day seminar for Bnei Anousim organized by Shavei Israel at the end of October. The seminar drew 80 people from across southern Italy and Sicily. After Rabbi Punturello visited the Steri Palace, he contacted the mayor of Palermo, who readily agreed with the rabbi’s proposal that the time had come to replace darkness with light.


About Sicilian Jewry:

The history of Jews in Sicily dates back more than two millennia, to the Second Temple period. Despite enduring various periods of legal restrictions and persecutions over the ensuing centuries, the Jews of Sicily flourished and produced many great scholars and rabbis.

In the late 14th century, Sicily’s Jews were confined to ghettos and faced increasingly harsh decrees as well as massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism. These measures culminated in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the remaining Jews to leave. At the time, there were at least 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering more than 37,000 people. Nearly all had left by December 31, 1492. Large numbers of forcibly-converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition.


About Shavei Israel:

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.


Attached, please find photos from the event. Photo credit: Courtesy of Shavei Israel organization.

Photo # 1 – Second from right is Prof. La galla and third from right is Rav Punturello, lighting the Channukkia at the Steri.

Photo #2 – Participants at the event.

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