Located along Italy's southern coastline in the region of Calabria, near the very tip of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula, the village of Bova Marina appears an unlikely place to witness Jewish history unfold.
The small town, home to just over 4,000 people, lies nestled between quiet beaches with stunning views of the Ionian Sea and rugged, untamed hills stretching out amid large tracts of agricultural farmland.
Quaint and rustic, like countless other diminutive Italian settlements in the area, there is little on the surface to suggest even the remotest connection with the people of Israel.
Nonetheless, in a story that says as much about the Jewish past as it does about the Jewish future, it was precisely in Bova Marina, on the site of a long-forgotten ancient synagogue, that an historic and inspiring Jewish event took place last month.
On June 4, Dr. Roque Pugliese and Dr. Ivana Pezzoli, both of whom are Bnei Anusim (descendants of Iberian Jews forcibly converted during the 14th and 15th centuries), walked down the aisle and were married under a huppah, the traditional wedding canopy, which had been erected especially for the occasion.
Growing up in Calabria and Argentina, Pugliese's parents had hidden their Jewish roots, but as an adult he embraced his heritage. While Pezzoli was raised with certain Jewish traditions in her family, she was never told why this was the case. After embarking on genealogical research, she discovered that she, too, had Jewish roots, and then proceeded to study Judaism for eight years before undergoing formal conversion.
The couple, who found their way back to the faith of their forefathers with help from Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, had specifically chosen Bova Marina to serve as the location of their nuptials.
The reason behind their choice was as noble as it was romantic: to close an historical circle and bring Jewish life back to the site.
While most Jews have never heard of Bova Marina, it is in fact home to something unique: the second-oldest synagogue ever found in Europe, dating back to the 4th century CE.
More than 35 years ago, road construction crews looking to improve the transportation infrastructure in the area unearthed what appeared to be an archaeological site, one of many that are often found in a country such as Italy, which is suffused in ancient relics. But the dusty and tired workers had no idea of the significance of what they had uncovered.
After the debris was cleared, it became apparent that this was something special, the ruins of an ancient synagogue dating back 1,500 years. Among the items discovered were a mosaic floor with colorful tiles portraying images of a menorah, shofar, and a lulav and etrog, as well as a walled niche where the aron kodesh (holy ark) that contained Torah scrolls, once stood.
Not surprisingly, the synagogue structure faced directly toward Jerusalem, symbolizing the undying hope of Jews to return one day to their source.
AT THE wedding, it was hard to contain the emotion and excitement among the 100 or more invited guests, as we all knew that this was the first time since the Talmudic era that a Jewish couple had been married at the site.
Underlining the significance of the event, leaders of Italian Jewry came from Rome, Milan and elsewhere in order to attend. They included Chief Rabbi of Genova Giuseppe Momigliano; Rabbi Elia Richetti of Milan and Naples; Chief Rabbi of Florence Gad Piperno; and Union of Italian Jewish Communities president Mrs. Noemi Di Segni. The wedding was presided over by Rabbi Umberto Piperno, the former chief rabbi of Naples. Dozens of other Bnei Anusim from throughout southern Italy and Sicily came to Bova Marina to participate in the festivities.
The wedding and its location were a tangible reminder of this part of Italy's glorious Jewish past. Indeed, legend has it that the first Jews arrived in Calabria – possibly as slaves – after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple in 70 CE, however, the first historical evidence points to a Jewish presence in the region by the 4th century.
The 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions the existence of a local Jewish community, many of whom fled eastward and sought refuge in Calabria after the expulsion of Spain's Jews in 1492.
The Inquisition followed shortly thereafter, and a series of expulsions and forced conversions took place in the region in the 16th century, culminating in 1541 with a decree that all Jews must either leave Calabria or convert to Catholicism.
A number of the area's synagogues were seized and turned into churches, but many of the forcibly-converted Calabrian Jews continued to practice Judaism in secret down through the generations. In recent years, a growing number of their descendants, such as Pugliese and Pezzoli, have been courageously reconnecting with our people.
Against all odds, the Jewish spark in Calabria and elsewhere in southern Italy continues to glimmer, stubbornly refusing to be extinguished. It behooves Israel and the Jewish people to intensify our outreach efforts to Bnei Anusim wherever they may be and welcome them back into our midst.
As I watched the wedding unfold, and was asked to recite one of the traditional Sheva Brachot, or seven blessings that are central to the ceremony, I thought of the idea mentioned in the mystical text of the Zohar that when a Jewish couple is wed, their departed loved ones are present in spirit to share in the joy.
I would like to think that on that day in Bova Marina, as we danced and celebrated the first Jewish wedding there in 1,500 years, countless other souls who had endured torture and persecution for clinging to their Jewishness over the centuries also came to take part in this very special occasion. And as the bride and groom suggested, may it serve to herald a new chapter of rebirth and rejuvenation for Calabria's Bnei Anusim.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists lost tribes and other hidden Jewish communities return to the Jewish people.