The street sign read “Via della Guidecca”. I had travelled to Sicily over the New Year holidays and while in Syracuse, had stumbled across this street. I thought this must be the old Jewish quarter and maybe, just maybe, there was something left of it to see. Indeed there was. Further down the street was a sign “Ancient Jewish Ritual Bath”- a mikvah. What I found was one of the oldest and largest mikvahs in Europe.
It was built in 600 AD to serve a rather large Jewish community. It was carved out of bedrock nine meters below the surface on top of freshwater springs (see photo below). It served a fairly large Jewish community which dated back to at least 70 AD. By the 1400s, 5,000 Jews lived in Syracuse and were served by 12 synagogues. The use of the mikvah ended in 1492. Spain controlled Sicily then. When it decreed all Jews in Spain had to convert to Catholicism or leave, the measure applied as well to Sicily. Apparently, Jews boarded up the entrance to prevent desecration and then problems with the water circulation in the area resulted in a complete flooding of the space. Over time, all memory of the mikvah disappeared until several decades ago when the company converting a crumbling palazzo atop the site into a hotel uncovered the mikvah.
Walking into the mikvah, down the 48 stone steps, takes one back in time. If Jews believed in reincarnation, I’d half believe that I had been there before. This was a strong and vibrant Jewish community. Most Jews left but those who stayed and converted became known as “neofiti” (the Sicilian equivalent to the Spanish terms “conversos” or worse “marranos”). In the past decades some of their descendants have come back to the faith and a synagogue now operates in Syracuse.
After this immersion in Jewish history, I returned to Brussels to our own congregation. We held our first Shabbat services of 2019 last weekend as well as a Hebrew School session and an overflowing Tot class. All good for the soul and the spirit. And we mark one year since the IJC moved to share with Beth Hillel. And it has been a good 12 months for IJC and Beth Hillel. The waters may be turbulent in the greater world but inside our community the flow have been regular and soothing.
The President of the IJC