With a continuous presence of Jews from classical times to today, Rome’s Jewish community may well be the oldest one in the world. At approximately 15,000, its numbers constitute less than 0.4 percent of Rome’s total population of three million. Nevertheless, the Jews of Italy’s capital city make up a distinguished and highly visible segment of the population.
But for years, Jewish children in the Piazza Bologna neighborhood had to make do with cramped and inadequate facilities. “We opened the preschool 16 years ago with three children,” recalls Mrs. Sara Hazan, Chabad representative to Rome. As enrollment grew and reached a whopping 70, finding a new place became a priority, and the Hazans took the matter up with the city’s Mayor. “We are literally bursting at the seams, still operating out of a small apartment with no garden, no outside area, and no breathing space,” says Mrs. Hazan.
With real estate scarce and prohibitively high in this city, it was not going to be easy to find another place. But having labored long and hard to advance Jewish identity since their arrival here as Chabad representatives back in 1976, Rabbi Yitzchok and Sara Hazan are not easily dissuaded. Indeed, thirty years ago, when the young couple established Foundation Schneerson in Rome, Jewish activity was barely humming along in the “eternal city.”
“There was no such thing as Jewish educational programs for teenagers or adults,” says Mrs. Hazan. Apart from the formal Jewish day school, there was precious little to attract or keep Jewish children connected.
In the ensuing years, the Hazans, collaborating closely with the existing Jewish community, developed a wide range of educational and social services to deepen and broaden the Jewish experience for the Jews of Rome. A winning formula of formal and informal educational activities, including a pre-school, Talmud Torahs, Shabbat retreats, singles events and holiday awareness programs made deep inroads, raising Jewish awareness among the city’s Jews. Public school children and college-age students, adults and toddlers, and even the elderly, were soon connecting, and discovering ways of identifying as Jews.
“Our purpose was to provide Jewish education wherever it was lacking,” says Mrs. Hazan, explaining that one of their first activities was the opening of a preschool in Piazza Bologna, a neighborhood that has no Jewish day school. “Once these children attended our preschools, we directed them to the community’s Jewish schools.” In fact, she notes, “all of our activities are structured so as to integrate the children–who would otherwise become completely alienated and never set foot into a shul–into the Jewish community’s schools and synagogues.” To date, hundreds have consequently gone on from Chabad’s preschools and Talmud Torahs, to Vittorio Polacco, the community Jewish day school.
About five years ago, Mayor Walter Veltroni met with Rabbi and Mrs. Hazan at the Hazan home, and they discussed this particular challenge of finding adequate facilities for Gan Chaya. “The Mayor told me that if I can locate suitable facilities owned by the municipality, he will do his part to arrange for the city to lease the property to us for 100 years,” Rabbi Hazan says.
It took years, but Rabbi Hazan persisted and did finally find an ideal 18th century building set within a park. Occupied by hordes of pigeons who have taken up residence in the building, which is in need of serious renovations, the property, as Rabbi Hazan happily learned upon doing his research, was in fact, owned by the city.
On November 25th, the Mayor made good on his word, formally designating the property to Foundation Schneerson for the purpose of its growing preschool. “The Mayor has proven himself a true friend of the Jewish community, and a results-oriented advocate,” says Rabbi Hazan.
“This is a most welcome development,” says Israel Rinaldo Leotardi, a graduate of the Chabad Talmud Torah who went on to direct the local Jewish Community’s Youth activities. “The new Gan Chaya building will greatly enhance Jewish life in Rome for the young Jewish children of the city and their families.”
The Hazans say that they have received similar feedback from many parents of the preschoolers and members of the community who are “thrilled with the expansion of the preschool, and are looking forward eagerly to seeing the building renovated.” Various difficulties are delaying the signing of the final contract with the city, says Rabbi Hazan, but he is confident that Mayor Veltroni will bring this issue to a successful conclusion.
“We’ve searched so long and hard for this,” says Mrs. Hazan, and “the children finally deserve an appropriate facility conducive to their physical and spiritual growth.”