From late August to late June, we celebrate b’nei mitzvah pretty much weekly so I am rarely away for more than a few days. Several months ago, however, I noticed February would bring two wonderfully anomalous consecutive weekends without b’nei mitzvah. I said to Robin, let’s do something different.
Fine. But what to do? We of course wanted to go to Israel, at least for a short visit. That’s a given. But also something else?
I got in touch with old friends at the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international organization of what in different countries is called Reform, Progressive or Liberal Judaism. I spent years there (after a stint in a congregation in Rio de Janeiro) working with Jewish communities in over twenty countries, creating new congregations, placing rabbis and other professionals, and in general strengthening Jewish life.
It was work I loved. However, being out of the country over half the time was hardly family friendly, so I felt lucky to be offered the no less intense but more geographically tame pulpit of Temple B’nai Abraham. I have tried at least to keep my finger in the international Jewish world, through various Temple missions to Israel and elsewhere and personal visits providing short term rabbinical help throughout Brazil.
But I’d never done this in Europe. I asked, if we were to spend a weekend in one European city, go to Israel for five days, then return through another European city, is there something useful I can do? There’s no shortage of English-speaking rabbis wandering through Europe, but with fluent Portuguese and Spanish that’s not far behind, I figured I’d have something to offer.
So on Wednesday night of last week we left Newark airport for Lisbon. The irrationality of airline pricing insisted we travel via London, so it was only late Thursday afternoon that we landed in Lisbon. We were picked up by members of Ohel Jaco (“Tent of Jacob”), the small congregation that would host us for Shabbat.
Until Friday night we had no responsibilities, so we played tourist. Thursday night we left the hotel (Janelas Verdes, two thumbs up) and wandered the neighborhood. Around 8:00 PM we found a restaurant that was empty – people in this part of the world really do eat late! The waitress was an Italian woman who had also lived in Brazil, Spain and the United States, so we had a lot to talk about, in many languages.
Friday we wandered the city. In graduate school I concentrated on the history of medieval Iberian Jewry so, never having visited Lisbon before, this was especially interesting. Our guide, Isabel, worked as a teacher for several years but changed careers because of a terrible employment market for teachers. Along with much of Western Europe, Portugal’s birth rate is low, and at least 50% of the population is over 65. For us, Portugal (and Spain, later on) was quite cheap, but not, we realized, for the locals.
Portugal’s Jewish history is rich but its modernity is sparse. There are roughly a thousand Jews in Lisbon, with small pockets in a few other cities. The main synagogue in Lisbon is Shaarei Tikvah, founded roughly 100 years ago. It is nominally Orthodox though I imagine there are few truly Orthodox Jews in the city. There is no rabbi at present; we heard it is rare to realize a minyan on Shabbat.
Its founders were largely North African Jews who began to come to Portugal when the ban was lifted. In the 1930s, a new wave of immigrants arrived, from Poland and Germany. It is unclear if they rejected or were rejected by the Sephardic Jews, but in any case they founded Ohel Jaco. At one time it numbered several hundred members, but as Portugal was largely a way station for refugees, it quickly dwindled in size.
Portugal and Spain both have many people who consider themselves b’nei anusim, descendants of those who were forced to convert during the Inquisition. In recent decades many have sought formal conversion, and it was such a group that took responsibility for Ohel Jaco, people who were mostly not brought up as Jews, but were convinced of their Jewish heritage and underwent formal conversion outside of Portugal.
We were a small group Friday night – exactly a minyan – but the enthusiasm was large. Some of the melodies I knew, some may have come from Sephardic traditions, and others, I suspect, just kind of evolved. Those present listened to my sermon with the attentiveness of which any rabbi dreams.
After the service we sat down together for a light supper – everybody brought something – and Robin and I heard personal stories. Our hosts were warm, appreciative, and could not have been nicer. Ohel Jaco has been located for many years in a largish apartment in a run-down section of the city – much of Lisbon looks run-down – but the members take pride in maintaining its beauty.
Saturday morning we lost a few people but gained a couple of others, including a young Dutch couple recently arrived in Lisbon so that he could oversee a call center owned by a French company. (Welcome to the European Union.) Again, participation was enthusiastic, even though the antiquated, Orthodox siddur they use has many challenges. (I promised to help arrange for something more suitable.)
In sum, we could not have encountered a more committed group of people. Being with them was moving.
We saw another side of the local community on Saturday night. Robin and I had dinner at the home of a couple with whom we have a mutual friend. Besides us there were eight or ten others, all Jewish, all contemporaries of ours, all from Lisbon, from probably the last generation that grew up Jewish in Lisbon and by and large married within the community.
All are life-long members of the main synagogue but none attend except, perhaps, on the High Holy Days. Most have children outside of Portugal, and the desire for them to have a Jewish life was a key reason.
This, too, was an incredibly nice group of people and they, too, could not have been more hospitable. It became clear that their conception of the Jewish community differed from that of those at Ohel Jaco. When people in a small Jewish community arrive at their Jewish identities by different routes that do not overlap, well, it is complicated. How lucky we are, where being Jewish is so easy.
No direct flights from Lisbon to Tel Aviv, so Sunday morning we Ubered early to the airport and flew to Israel via Frankfurt, picking up a couple of hours and arriving in the early evening. Robin oversees admissions for an American high school in Israel, so a driver from Kibbutz Tzuba outside Jerusalem, where the program is housed, brought us there.
There are over sixty kids on the program this semester and it’s clear they are having an amazing experience. Both our kids did it, and it changed their lives, so I wasn’t surprised.
Essentially, it is an accredited semester at an American high school, where every high school course one might take is replicated in conjunction with the home high school to ensure a seamless transition. This is in addition to courses in Hebrew and Jewish History, to say nothing of travels and experiences throughout the land. (N.B. This REALLY makes a college application stand out!)
Robin spent Monday in meetings while I wrote postcards, read, and stared at the Judean Hills. Late afternoon we headed to Tel Aviv, and dinner with three of “our” kids.
Alana Tendler finished her MBA at Tel Aviv University last year and is working in Tel Aviv; Sloan Genzer and Morgan Unger are spending a junior year semester at TAU’s international program. We had a long fun evening – at Bellini in Neve Tzedek, great restaurant! – getting caught up and hearing about their adventures. Sloan and Morgan are both in the Ulpan, the all-day Hebrew immersion classes that start their program…and by my evaluation, doing very well considering they arrived just a short time ago!
Alana works in the business world, and we talked about how cultures in different countries affect what goes on in the workplace…let’s just say, we agreed, that Israelis are not always as concerned about “order” as we are!
My favorite moment of the evening was when Alana told Morgan and Sloan how great it was to spend Purim in Israel; in the Diaspora, even in the best of situations, it’s a minor kids’ holiday. In Israel, she pointed out, the entire country goes wonderfully nuts for a day.
It was fun to see how into Israel all three have become, and especially, to see their eyes opening to Israel as a real country with real people confronting real challenges, not the inspiring but often two dimensional image often presented in the Diaspora. Being with them was moving, partly because I’ve known each of these girls a long time, but even more, to see that Israel was becoming an integral and inextricable part of their lives.
For our remaining days in Israel, we indulged ourselves. We rented a car in Tel Aviv and drove a couple of hours south, through Beer Sheva, to Mitzpeh Ramon, in the heart of the Negev Desert. The Beresheet Hotel – as a great an indulgence as one can find in Israel – is perched on top of the Ramon Crater, one of the world’s great geological sites.
For three days we explored the area – not, admittedly, too vigorously – lazed around, visited with other people – though we expected foreigners, almost all were Israelis – and soaked it all in. And early Friday morning, we took off – finally, a non-stop! – for Barcelona.
In my pre-TBA days I came to Barcelona frequently. With a number of South American Jews, Argentinians in particular, moving here, it seemed like a good locale for a liberal synagogue. That synagogue grew and helped spawn others, during a time in which the Jewish population of Spain has grown enormously. So called “official” statistics are at best guesswork; perhaps there are five or six thousand Jews in Barcelona and as much as three times that in Madrid.
Leaders of congregations from those two cities, and Cadiz in the south, met this weekend and I had the honor of being the guest for the Shabbaton. The service Friday night was well attended with outstanding participation, using a prayerbook created in Barcelona. Also present was an old friend, Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, who has lived in France for twenty years and who travels from Paris to Spain once or twice a month.
After dinner everybody present, some sixty people, gathered at one long table for a really fun Shabbat dinner. Lots of conversations at the table, lots of singing and lots of laughter. For us the only problem was, well, the Spanish relationship with time. This “early” service started at 8:00 PM, lasted an hour and a half or so, and we did not get down to dinner until nearly 10:00 PM. Our day had begun in Tel Aviv at 4:00 AM so we dragged ourselves out at 11:30 PM…with the fun still going on.
The morning service was enjoyable, with visitors from different cities – us included! – given aliyot. Robin and I had a nice lunch and wandered a bit, then I returned in the late afternoon for a session on community building in Spain.
I always found working with disparate Jewish communities intellectually fascinating, seeing how Jewish life evolves in any given place because of the unique characteristics of that particular place. In this case, other than location, what makes a Spanish Jewish community Spanish?
I learned about the challenge of commitment to a five hundred year old heritage in the contemporary world; historical realities that give undue power and advantages to the Orthodox establishment, including government funding, despite little real Orthodox presence; and perhaps most significant, the profoundly lay orientation of the country, especially Barcelona, that makes any religious undertaking an effort.
The Jews I met here were from different backgrounds, Jews by birth and by choice, Jews from Spain and from abroad, Jews of all ages. But the commitment and tenacity they showed toward creating a meaningful Spanish Judaism for the 21st century was inspiring. As I walked back to the hotel, I had a feeling I had just witnessed the future.
Now Shabbat is over. I am in the hotel lobby, finishing this letter and waiting to go to dinner. More TBA students tonight, though I am not sure how many. Eight are spending this semester in Spain but weekends are big travel times. A few days in Prague or Paris beats dinner with the rabbi – no contest! But I will be delighted to see whoever shows up.
Home tomorrow – United nonstop to EWR! I met many admirable people over the last several days. The community activists in Lisbon, Barcelona, and other cities in the Iberian peninsula labor under obstacles we can only imagine. Sometimes I think one of our biggest challenges as Jews is how easy it is for us.
I look forward to going home. After ten days juggling three languages some uninterrupted time in English is appealing. But these recent experiences will stay with me for quite some time to come.
Shavua tov from Robin and me…we’ll see you soon.