Rome’s Chief Rabbi Is Also a Doctor – and Says Coronavirus May Also Be an Opportunity

Riccardo Di Segni explains why he imposed coronavirus restrictions on his synagogue before it was required: 'Jewish life is based on companionship – we eat, drink, pray and study together. This has all stopped'

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Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.
Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.Credit: Jewish Community of Rome
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Shachar Peled

Dr. Riccardo Di Segni stands at a unique intersection of health and faith: He is both a medical doctor and the chief rabbi of Rome, capital of the country that has seen the most deaths from the coronavirus.

“My experience allows for a different point of view,” the retired radiologist, speaking Hebrew, told Haaretz in a phone interview. “As part of my medical work I’ve also helped organize during emergencies, and this is exactly where we’re at right now.”

Di Segni, 70, headed the radiology department of the San Giovanni public hospital in Rome between 2001 and 2014. He helped prepare that medical institution and others during times of emergency.

“Following the London attacks in 2005 there were growing fears of terror attacks across Europe, and health institutions wanted to know how to be ready for such an event,” he recalls. “As I had links to medical organizations in Israel, I flew there to see how they cope [with terror attacks] and translated this model to Italian hospitals.”

Another crossroad for Di Segni between religion and medicine is in ethics. “One of the major problems while facing an emergency event is choosing whom to save,” he says, adding that there are both medical and Torah ethics to consider, and with so many deaths during the coronavirus crisis, such policies are crucial.

“There had never been such a shortage of ventilators in Italy, so it remains a theoretical debate, but of course one criterion, like age, can’t suffice. The goal is to save as many lives as possible, and we should consider patients’ health status and medical history among other things; otherwise it’s completely inhumane.”

Despite officially retiring five years ago, his four decades of medical practice combined with his prominent role in the Jewish community put him in an outstanding position.

“The fact that I also have a medical background has more influence on people; they have more trust in me,” he says. “When a rabbi speaks, some listen to him and some don’t, but if his words are backed by medical experience, there’s more of an impact, of course.”

Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.
Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.Credit: Jewish Community of Rome

No kissing mezuzahs

This trust was especially important when he tried to convince the religious community to cease its gatherings and traditions. Early last month, Di Segni ordered against the kissing of mezuzahs and prayer shawls, and canceled Purim events.

“Some laughed at these decisions at first, but it seems I was ahead of the crisis,” he says. In an attempt to gradually apply the new measures, Rome synagogues insisted that only every second row be filled; only later did they shut their doors completely.

“Many people complained and thought I was exaggerating because Rome’s churches remained open, but our social form of praying couldn’t allow it,” he says. “Others demanded a full closure even before the authorities requested it, so it was very difficult to be in between these two pressures.”

Di Segni says he’s often asked for guidance as both a doctor and a rabbi. “Fasting, for example, is a core principle in Judaism in the event of a disaster. But when there’s a plague, as it’s referred to in special religious-medical terminology, you don’t have to fast; this way you can be in the best health possible.”

Di Segni then translates these biblical measures for use in modern times, “and so a debate among rabbis and doctors in the community ensues on such matters.”

As Rome’s chief rabbi since 2001, he has led the congregation through many challenges, but of course the coronavirus crisis is unique. “We’re seeing turmoil in our mutual lives,” he says.

“Jewish life is based on companionship. While a Christian may pray alone in a church, a Jewish prayer takes place in a group. We eat together and drink together and study together. This has all stopped in a dramatic way.”

Torah lessons online

Di Segni points to the COVID-19 crisis as a socioeconomic issue as well as a medical one; many of Rome’s 13,000 or so Jews are getting battered financially.

“And this is just the beginning,” he says. “The real financial crisis will follow the health one, so we’re already focusing on every individual case of hardship in our community, to reach out and help, especially during the days of Pesach.”

But Di Segni also sees this watershed as an opportunity.

“It has opened new avenues that we didn’t expect,” he says. “We’ve begun conducting Torah lessons by rabbis online. A lesson that was usually attended by about 100 people has now been viewed live by 2,000.”

As part of the Rome medical community, Di Segni is a member of a local crisis unit, where he is advising on how to move forward. “We’re looking ahead to the future and at the ways we should return to normal life,” he explains. “It won’t be all at once and we need to prepare the dos and don’ts.”

Italy has suffered over 17,100 deaths in the crisis, with more than 135,000 Italians contracting the virus and over 24,000 already recovered. The government is still investigating why there have been greater outbreaks in certain parts of the country; in any case, Di Segni believes few people took the issue seriously, and it took time to realize the significance of the tragedy.

“But now there is an effort to contain it and we need to keep it going in order not to find ourselves in a second wave of infections,” he says.

Still, his message is one of hope. “This is of course an extraordinary situation but also an opportunity to think differently and a time to explore unknown territory from which we can move on stronger and wiser.”

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