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In Venice, Witnessing Extraordinary Activities by (Not So) Ordinary People

In Venice, Witnessing Extraordinary Activities by (Not So) Ordinary People

A street in Venice right next to the Jewish Ghetto.
A street in Venice right next to the Jewish Ghetto.

Inside the friendly ambience of the Chabad House, I’m sitting across from Noah Rieber listening to her experience as a shlucha (Chabad-Lubavitch emissary). Outside, as the sun is setting and wind is blowing, some wandering visitors are strolling around the Jewish ghetto—the oldest one in the world. It’s off-season, and the atmosphere is leisurely and rather quiet. Yet the sweet sounds of Torah coming from the few yeshivah boys permeates this simple, holy room. It is not very large, this shul, maybe as big as the average living room, but there’s a serenity and holiness here that are so inviting.

Noah speaks softly, kindly, like an old friend, though we’ve never met before. Her words are interrupted every now and then, as she graciously greets those who drop in to warm themselves with a hot cup of tea, a slice of kosher cake and the coziness of a Jewish home. It is fascinating to see Jews from all over the world meet here in a welcoming embrace—the fact that you’ve never before met is irrelevant.

Our busy daily schedules sometimes keeps us “zoomed in” on lots of trivial, not to say insignificant, aspects of our lives. Once in a while, an opportunity comes along that widens our aperture, when we “zoom out” from the narrow, often inconsequential worries of routine life. For me, this occurred when I got the chance to travel with my sister to Venice, that unique and charming city bursting with canals and gondolas.

One of the most valuable benefits of travel is the opportunity it offers to expand your horizons. It’s a chance to see new things, connect with the annals of history and, of course, meet new people. Here in this room, tourists from London, Jerusalem, Israel, France, Turkey and America from all backgrounds connect with one another, any differences fading away. Like long-lost brothers and sisters, conversation flows naturally—one family, belonging to our One Creator, and one Torah.

Cuddling her little girl in her arms, Noah regales me with fascinating tales about how the miniature, storefront shul has been a beacon of light to many Jews whose lives have been touched by a taste of Shabbat, a Yom Kippur experience, a halachic discourse.

“What do you find challenging here?” I ask.

Noah lives far away from her family in Israel. Italian and even English are not her first languages. She homeschools her children. (That can’t be easy, even if the beautiful smile never leaves her face.) Her kids seem so carefree as they weave playfully under and between tables and chairs, the men’s section and the hospitality corner where hot tea, cake and salads are provided.

Rabbi Amichay and Mrs. Noah Rieber.
Rabbi Amichay and Mrs. Noah Rieber.

Noah looks at me. “Challenging?” she asks. Her forehead creases, her eyes staring into the distance, as though searching. “What do I find challenging?“ Obviously, she’s never thought about this before. She shrugs. “That’s a good question. I don’t know,” she says simply. “I’ve learned to make do with what we have. It’s better that way. Gone are the days when I wouldn’t know whether I’d have milk for my coffee or not. I just decided there’s no kosher milk here, and that’s that. I used to bring tons of food from Israel every time I went to visit. But since I decided that we live here, we live with what we have, and we feel a lot happier.”

She laughs; there’s music to the tone, like the sound of the guitar her son is fingering. “It’s a lot healthier, too,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes. The family lives mostly on fruits, vegetables and fish that they purchase according to kosher signs ensuring that they have fins and scales. “The only thing we bring back from Israel these days are books. Any Jewish book that gets published, we’ve got it.”

Seems like food for thought is more appetizing.

Noah’s daughter, Tamar, will be celebrating her bat mitzvah soon. It was her I first met the evening before. She was absorbed with the task of doing her homework with the only Jewish friend her age in Venice, and I was amazed at the way she kept focused on her work, all the while checking to see if there was anything anybody needed.

Tamar attends school online, a remarkable project of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Shluchim Office, which provides resources to other Chabad emissaries, serving hundreds of students who listen to lessons and interact via internet. The heroine of a book about her called Tamar of Venice, she is completely unfazed by it all. In fact, she seems to take it all in stride: the comings and goings, her reputation, her homework. I don’t know how she handles it all simultaneously and so gracefully.

A minyan in the Chabad House.
A minyan in the Chabad House.

Last year, Rabbi Amichay Rieber, Noah’s husband, took their young son to Israel for the last day of school to participate in an end-of-year school contest. The little boy knew all the answers, moving smoothly along as questions advanced into higher levels. Finally, he was one of the two last boys left in the contest, at which point he quietly demurred from answering the question. Pleased that his learning was up to par with the rest of his age mates, his parents nevertheless wondered why he didn’t pursue the exalted status of the winner. “I had two reasons,” he said. “First, I didn’t think it was nice that I, who didn’t learn with them all year, should win; and second, the prize was only a spinner.” (Fidget spinners was the trendiest toy last year for young people.)

It seems that others members of the shul are in the know. The reason for our impromptu meeting has circulated amongst them, and they understand that our words will be published in an article. As such, some of them enthusiastically approach us. They are eager to express their gratitude.

“These people are true tzaddikim,” says Isaac Havi originally from Tripoli, Libya, a tour guide by profession who lives in Venice. “Their hospitality and kindness is incredible.”

Noah dismisses his words. “It’s not us,” she insists. “It Rabbi Rami and Mrs. Shachar Banin.”

Indeed, the Banins have worked tirelessly for the last 25 years, welcoming tourists, hosting holiday programs and running Hebrew-school lessons for children, assisting Jewish students learning in Universities in Venice and the surrounding cities, and providing support and counseling to all. They run a popular kosher restaurant, Gam-Gam, which provides Shabbat hospitality, including Friday-night meals for tourists. Sometimes, hundreds attend, spilling out into the street singing and dancing.

Despite the fact that Jews have lived in Venice since the Middle Ages—with some 5,000 Jewish residents at its height in the 17th century—the Venice Jewish community now numbers fewer than 450. Only a handful of Jews live in the ghetto area today, which Venetian rulers designated as Europe’s first enclosed place of Jewish segregation in 1516. Very few local Jews seek contacts with the tourists, other than as customers in their shops or men for a minyan.

The support of the Venice Chabad House extends to those who live in the entire Veneto area, including Padova, Verona, Treviso and Vicenza, where there are two American army bases. Both the Banins and the Riebers help the Jewish soldiers and their families by providing them with holiday needs, circumcisions for soldiers’ sons, menorahs during Chanukah and kosher food.

“Many travelers—visitors from all parts of the globe exploring the world—have had their first Jewish experience here at Chabad,” says Noah. “We’re not looking for any results. We only plant seeds. We never know which seed will grow. But often, visitors have gone home and continued their journeys in their hometowns.”

In our golden era, when all over the world we can freely observe Torah and mitzvot, it takes some serious determination to sacrifice the comforts that so many of us take for granted for the sake of shining the light of Judaism in every part of the world. I can’t help but feel awed by these unpretentious families, who simply have no idea how really great and needed they are.

Menachem Mendel (Memi) Rieber in the Chabad shul.
Menachem Mendel (Memi) Rieber in the Chabad shul.

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Shoshana Florida via January 14, 2018

I'll never forget the Gam Gam restaurant in Venice where I experienced and Amazing hospitable Shabbat. In a city in which Jews were both persecuted and protected, I felt the tikkun of saying brachos and davenning. What a shluchas of purpose ! Reply

Louise Stoll Burlington, Vermont via January 11, 2018

We visited Venice 53 years ago, and tracked down an old synagogue then being taken care of by a very old man who showed us around, explaining to us that he and other Jews had hidden the Torahs as Italy joined the second World War.The synagogue was on the second floor of a building on the promenade street of old Venice, not easy to find, but in surprisingly good shape due to returning Jews restoring it after the second World War ended. It no longer held services. Reply

Pamela licht Altamonte Springs, Florida January 11, 2018

We visited Venice this past August! The first place we went to on the first day was the Old Jewish Quarter and my husband put on tefillin at the Chabad office on the square! It was such a marvelous experience! We are members of Chabad of Greater Orlando with the Dubov Family! Reply

Daniel Moshe Johnson Toronto January 9, 2018

Shalom Aleichem

I want to visit Venice soon, it is an old model of what old New Orleans should have been in Louisiana.

The history, the intrigue, I want to experience the oldest community of Yehudis in the modern day.

Shalom to Chabad and the other families that keep it going. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles January 8, 2018

We wish you much Hatzlacha and Bracha.
Do you have a Pessach program?
My husband is a naturopathic physician and a vegetarian.
We were interested in possibly coming to Venice.
Was a former opera singer in Vienna, Austria during the 80's.
Spent some time in Venice (of course) and was really transformed.
My Mother obm was an artist and we used to travel to Venice together, where she would sketch.
Such memories...
We wish you much Hatzlacha!
Bracha Reply