Barcelona's Jews Welcome Long-lost Sephardim to Their Ranks

After passage of a new Spanish law offering citizenship to Jews tracing their roots back to 1492, the city's small community – with its one kosher restaurant and one school – is hopeful but skeptical about a mass influx of newcomers.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Barcelona.Credit: Dreamstime
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

BARCELONA, Spain – They are not holding their breath in Barcelona. It’s not, stresses Catalonia-born and bred Nily Schorr, that the Jewish community would not like thousands of new members. They would.

Even hundreds would be wonderful, says Schorr, 40, as she navigates her SUV around Sant Cugat del Valles, a suburb west of Barcelona, toward the Hatikva school. Even, really, a few more families, she smiles, as she parks in front of the school, which all three of her children attend. The graduating class here consisted of a sum total of six kids, she says. Its just, she shrugs, that she does not see it happening.

Paul Murga, 35, a Barcelona-based lawyer, and a fellow community member agrees. He has over a dozen overseas clients turning to him these days and asking how exactly they can prove their Jewish ancestors were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella 523 years ago from what is today Spain – and get themselves Spanish passports and an entry ticket to the European Union in the process. He gives them all the same warning: lower your expectations.

“The aim of this legal reform was not to open a wide door,” he says of the new Spanish law which, with Senate approval, passed its final hurdle on June 11. “My impression is that it was to close that door forever.”

Barcelona lawyer Paul Murga.Credit: Danna Harman

According to this much-awaited and discussed law, starting October 1, Sephardic Jews who can trace their roots to their ancestors and prove they were forced out of Spain in 1492, can reclaim that long-lost citizenship, without having to give up their current nationalities. According to the new legislation, the doors will remain open to applicants for three years – with a possible further year extension to resolve outstanding cases. And then, as Murga stresses, the story will be over.

The Spanish government reportedly estimates that some 90,000 people might apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, Centro Sefarad-Israel, a Madrid-based institution that educates people about the country’s Jewish heritage, has indicated that the number of Sephardic Jews who are potentially eligible could be as high as 3.5 million – with 1.4 million of that number in Israel and over 300,000 each in the United States and France.

But the process remains highly confusing, quite complicated and possibly expensive. No one, so it seems, is clear on what exactly the criteria will be or who is in charge of certifying applicants. Itzhak Erez, the Israeli consul in Madrid, stresses that it is not the Israeli authorities that need to be consulted when it comes to determining eligibility – but rather the Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain and the Spanish authorities themselves.

Nily Schorr.Credit: Danna Harman

Like the embassy in Madrid and Jewish community centers around Spain, the FJCS has been receiving thousands of requests for clarifications and information, and is still studying the final form of the law – which has gone through many iterations since it was first proposed in 2012 – and has yet to come out with guidelines. As of now, it remains unclear if it is the FJCS, or applicants’ local rabbinical courts – or both, or neither – that will be in charge of reviewing and authenticating potential applicants’ documents.

Schorr, who works for the FJCS in communications, says that although the law passed on June 11, the Ministry of Justice is still working on the details of its implementation. Once those are clarified, she says, the federation, which is working alongside the Spanish government, will come out with clear guidance too.

The return to Spain

This is not the first time the Spanish have sought to redress historical wrongs, points out Victor Sorenssen, the energetic 32-year-old director of Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, which represents the city's official Jewish community. That happened back in 1924, in the wake of a visit by a Spanish member of the Senate to Thessaloniki.

As Sorenssen tells it, the senator was astounded to find whole communities in the Greek city with Spanish family names, speaking in Spanish and singing Shabbat songs in Ladino. Back in Madrid, the senator began petitioning the government to invite these Jews – and others like them around the world – to give up their existing citizenship and “return” to Spain; his efforts resulted in a law that was enacted in 1924.

Subsequent bilateral treaties between Spain and Egypt, and Spain and Greece, were drawn up in the 1930s referencing that 1924 law. These treaties included lists of names of Jews who were eligible, at that time, to apply for Spanish citizenship. The lists, says Murga, were apparently put together by the Spanish diplomatic missions in the two countries, together with the their local Jewish communities.

Sipping fresh orange juice at a café outside his office downtown, Murga leafs through the photocopied lists of names associated with those decades-old bilateral agreements: Abraham Dayan, Ether Gabbay, Samuel Ventura, Jose Carasso. He flips page after page.

“Note that these are not lists of generic Sephardic family names,” he explains. “These are lists of names of actual people, living in Egypt or Greece at the time.” It seems many of the rumors swirling around today over supposed “lists” of names of eligible candidates emanate from the old lists – although in fact, says the lawyer, there is no official correlation between them.

Jewish luminaries

Historians estimate that during the so-called Golden Age of Jewish life in Spain during the Middle Ages, some 200,000 Jews lived in this land – among them such luminaries as Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi, Maimonides, Nachmanides and his famous student, the Rashba, who served as the rabbi of Barcelona’s main synagogue for over 50 years.

However, by the 14th century, and certainly by the start of the Spanish Inquisition, anti-Jewish riots throughout the country saw Jews massacred, forcibly converted and forced to flee. By 1492, the only Jews remaining in Spain were the Conversos, who hid their Judaism until, several generations later, that too was lost to assimilation.

Five-hundred years later, the very first Jews documented to have returned to Spain, even before the official 1924 invitation, were 10 individuals, all Sephardic, from Turkey, Morocco, Russia and Germany, Sorenssen explains. Following them, came a bigger wave of Sephardim: It is believed that some 1,000-2,000 Jews “returned” to Spain under the auspices of the 1924 law and subsequent treaties.

It was this first wave – predominantly Sephardic and Orthodox – that established many of the main Jewish institutions still functioning today in Spain, including community centers and synagogues, as well as the Jewish Federation, a national umbrella organization. A second influx of Jewish immigration took place in the 1930s and '40s. These newcomers, says Sorenssen, were mostly Ashkenazim who crossed the Pyrenees, escaping Nazi Europe, or, in some cases, Jews who wanted to join the International Brigades and the Popular Front to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans. Some 200,000 Jews passed through Barcelona during those years, he adds, most on their way elsewhere, but small numbers stopped and settled in Barcelona, later spreading out to Madrid and other cities.

A third and large wave of immigrants, many of them still speaking Haketia, a mix of Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, arrived in the 1960s from Morocco, soon after independence there. The fourth wave came in the '70s, this time from Latin American countries suffering under dictatorships, in particular Argentina.

The influx of immigrants continued throughout the 1980s, when reforms to the civil code made it easier for Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship after two years of legal residency in the country.

During the early years of the 21st century, more Argentineans arrived on these shores, this time escaping the economic crisis there. These Latin American newcomers diversified but also divided the community, says Sorenssen, creating their own unofficial institutions and community bases, better suited to their more laid-back, less religiously observant backgrounds and cultures.

Today, the Jewish community of Spain, its members stress, is a real mix of Sephardim and Ashkenazim from around the globe. CIB President Uri Benguigui was born – to parents whose ancestry dates back to pre-1492 Spain – in Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. Sorenssen’s Ashkenazi family, meanwhile, comes from German and Norway on one side, and Mexico on the other. He was born in Venezuela and moved to Spain at the age of six.

Nily Schorr’s mother was born in Spain and her father in Israel, but she too comes from an Ashkenazi family; her grandparents came from Romania and Galicia. Schorr met her Israeli-born Argentinean husband – also an Ashkenazi – at the popular post-Passover Maimouna event at Barcelona's Jewish community center.

For his part, Murga, was born into a Christian family in Peru and underwent conversion at a Reform synagogue in Barcelona. He later married someone from the local community, an Argentinean of mixed Spanish and Hungarian descent.

“What can I say, we have a little of everything here,” laughs Schorr.

'Room to grow'

With no questions about religious identity allowed in the national census, and because many of Spain's Jews are unaffiliated, their exact number is hard to determine, community officials agree. Unofficial estimates range anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 – but in terms of those officially registered with Jewish communities around the country, the numbers are far lower. In Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and home to the second-largest Jewish community, around 3,000 Jews have in some way raised their hands to be counted.

There is one kosher restaurant here, one kosher butcher and one Jewish school – which goes from kindergarten through 10th grade and has some 220 students (not all of whom are Jewish) – and, around the corner from the school, one Jewish social club, which has been under renovation for three years; its swimming pool is being turned into a parking lot.

There is an annual Jewish summer camp, two Jewish youth movements (Orthodox and Reform), and as is typical of Jewish populations, there are five different communities – the official Orthodox one (which encompasses both Sephardic and Ashkenazi members, each conducting their own services), a Chabad house which is about to move into larger premises, two Reform communities started by Latin Americans, and a new independent study and Shabbat-evening services group that meets once a month and is led, in part, by Murga.

“Is there room to grow?” asks Schorr rhetorically. “Of course there is! The bigger and more diverse our community is, the more activities we can have, and the greater range and reach.”

She hopes that when Eylon, her 7-year-old and her eldest child, graduates from the Jewish school in a decade’s time, there will be more than six others picking up their diplomas alongside him.

“Applying for citizenship under these new rules does not seem easy,” she admits. “But I believe the offer is sincere. And there are those who will be successful, and they are truly welcome here.”

“This is an exciting time,” Murga admits. “It’s really a bomb about to explode in the government’s hands. Expectations have been raised and the pressure is mounting. I understand that the government wanted to give this story closure – but before that happens they are going to be forced to expend a lot more energy on resolving this. It is going to be interesting.”

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