THE CITY WITHIN THE CITY
The ghetto of Venice has recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, and for the occasion the Venetian Heritage Foundation, established to safeguard the lagoon and its cultural patrimony, has mobilized to gather funds for the restoration of the area and three of its five synagogues.
In 1516, due to the large influx of Jewish refugees coming to the lagoon following the Spanish riconquista, the Venetian Senate decided to confine the Jewish community on a small peripheral island in the area of Cannareggio where there had previously only been foundries. In this way the first Jewish “ghetto” in the world was born (the name ghetto most likely derives from the local word “getto,” referring to the dregs of the foundries), and today, many Jewish and gentile communities have mobilized to finance a large-scale restoration project to preserve a piece of history and, above all, memory. The realization of all of the foreseen operations entails a budget of eight million euros, two million of which have already arrived in the form of donations from a group of benefactors in the United States: a way of not forgetting their own origins and of protecting a patrimony of the greatest importance for the Jewish diaspora as a whole. Donations have come from parents on the occasion of the traditional bar mitzvah of their teenage sons. Hollywood VIPS have signed checks for the project, and involved colleagues and friends with their enthusiasm. Barbra Streisand, for example, having fallen in love with Venice during a vacation, made a donation and then got her friend Donna Karan to join in. Michael Frost, an American pharmaceutical magnate, has
also come on board. A large number of men and women have answered the call of the foundation, giving their contributions toward achieving the financial benchmark. In this initiative, the participation of celebrities is in fact as important as the number of checks signed and sent, as they provide valuable publicity for the project, according to Toto Bergamo Rossi, the director of the Venetian foundation, who was surprised by the enthusiasm which greeted an exhibition of religious objects from a synagogue found after 70 years of hiding in a ghetto attic—most likely left there for safekeeping on the day the neighborhood Jews were deported to concentration camps. The Venetian Heritage Foundation, which has its second headquarters in the United States, has undertaken a veritable doorto-door operation in the American Jewish community. As Bergamo Rossi says: “We have to focus on trust, and personally ringing the doorbells is the first fundamental step.” The fundraising operation is already yielding results, especially taking into consideration the other foundations that Venetian Heritage intends to contact shortly. But the amount gathered as of now is still not enough. The restoration of the five synagogues and the renovation and enlargement of the Jewish Museum will in fact cost around eight million euros, and it is possible that the complex project will proceed in stages, on the basis of funds received. However, they hope for substantial help from other famous names yet to be contacted, such as Diane von Fürstenberg and Steven Spielberg. Meanwhile, $50,000 have arrived in one fell swoop from the Berg Foundation for the installation of the exhibition that took place in the Doges’ Palace in June, 2016, with the title “The Jews, Venice, and Europe,” organized in collaboration with the Foundation of the Civic Museums of Venice. This is an opportunity of rebirth for the ancient ghetto, which is by now a historical and cultural patrimony that spiritually unites the Jewish community throughout the world, linked to its history and wounded by the brutality of fellow humans.
Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of the Venetian Heritage Foundation and expert in restoration