Milly Arbib’s prayer minyan is growing. These days, Sabbath services can see a crowd of up to 100 when there’s a Bar Mitzvah celebration. And it all takes place at her summer home outside of Rome, Italy.
The synagogue by the sea in Fregene began years ago because Arbib didn’t want to go back to Rome for the Sabbath in the summer, but also wanted to spend it with a Jewish community. So she brought out a Torah scroll, invited someone to read it, and launched what has become a firmly entrenched seasonal tradition for the Jews of Rome. People are even buying houses in the area because they know there are services, which today are coordinated by Chabad-Lubavitch of Rome’s summer outpost 20 kilometers outside of the city.
“This has been going on for a while,” says Arbib. “Being together makes it dynamic, and it’s a beautiful place.”
From the end of June until the end of September, when many of Rome’s residents vacation in the area, Arbib hosts locals and tourists alike. They step away from the sand to join a community of friends.
“When they come, instead of doing nothing the whole day, they have a place to come for Shabbat, to make prayers and hear Kiddush,” she relates.
More than 15 years have passed and many stories have taken place in the house. She and her husband previously expanded the house to make room for more people, and are considering another expansion this year to accommodate the growing number of families coming to live there.
“We had to enlarge to make the people more comfortable,” says Arbib, adding that their guests’ Jewish experiences often follow participants home, enriching their ritual life into the fall and beyond. “It’s like an island of holiness.”
People come away smiling and feeling good, says Chabad-Lubavitch of Rome director Rabbi Yitzchak Hazan. Summer is a great time to connect with European families, he adds, something that he points out to his colleagues in other cities looking to organize summer programs where their congregants vacation.
“They come to synagogue and they learn and they become closer to Judaism, even in the summer,” explains Hazan, who runs Torah classes in addition to the services at Arbib’s house.
“It’s a way to be together doing good things,” echoes Arbib. “Otherwise they’d be on the beach playing around.”
Even in Uruguay
Thousands of miles away in Uruguay, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov welcomes thousands of Jews to the resort town of Punta del Este every summer, although the season occurs six months earlier in South America. During the rest of the year, the town doesn’t have much of a native Jewish population, but from December to March, everyone pours in from Montevideo.
Shemtov’s Sabbath and weekday activities, including lectures and kids programming, draw quite the crowd, says the rabbi. And on Fridays, he pays a pilot to tow a banner along the coastline announcing the time for the Sabbath candle lighting.
“We rent it for one run along the coast every Friday,” relates Shemtov, recalling the story of a woman who began her journey toward traditional Judaism after seeing the plane go by. “She got up and went to light Sabbath candles, and that triggered a whole process in her.”
The crowd is a mix of South Americans on summer vacation, along with Europeans and Americans on a mid-winter break. The Friday night and Saturday lunches can bring 150 to the table, and keynote lectures an draw in excess of 1,000 people.
“It’s a great environment,” says Shemtov.
The community even wants to expand their summer facilities. On the top of the list is a new youth center, set to be built on a donated piece of land.
“You have thousands of Jewish kids hanging out there, looking for something to do,” explains the rabbi. “We’re looking to create a youth-oriented space for them to meet and network and enjoy activities and Friday night meal.”
Previous youth events have included special programs that bring the Sabbath to the groups of kids that congregate on the beach’s main strip on Friday nights.
“They’re going there to experience anything but Judaism,” says Shemtov, “and they ended up getting this unexpected visit.”