I have been going to Spain every year since 2008 in order to help Bet Shalom in Barcelona, a small nascent Reform congregation, with its programs and religious services. This June, after 10 days in Turkey, my wife and I spent two weeks in Barcelona, taking part in history-making activities.
My daily schedule was full. I officiated at three weddings for temple members, a bar mitzvah for an American Jewish family on their way to a Mediterranean cruise, gave two talks at Atid, the other Reform congregation in the city, lectured in a Skype-type forum on the conversion process to the rest of the progressive congregations in Spain, held numerous meetings, and led Friday night and Sabbath morning services. I also took part in the proceedings of the Beit Din (Religious Court) from London, which represented the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and in two days, we welcomed 20 individuals as Jews-by-choice (including tevilah, immersion in the ocean). After all these activities, I think I earned the right to have a long, long vacation. After all, I am a retired rabbi. But who could tell?
What made this trip so fascinating is that I witnessed the remarkable growth of Reform Judaism in Spain and, in particular, the creation of a new federation by three Reform synagogues, namely, Bet Shalom and Atid in Barcelona, and Bet Emunah in Asturias. It is expected that soon, other liberal groups from the cities of Seville and Madrid and the region of Galicia will join in, thus establishing a strong foundation for the presence of progressive Judaism in Spain within a cooperative structure. I am also delighted that the newly established Reform congregation in Seville has named me its honorary spiritual leader.
There aren’t many Jews in Spain – maybe 20,000 in the entire country – but Reform Judaism is here to stay. The creative visionary of this endeavor is Jai Anguita, 42, of Bet Shalom, who has moved earth and sky to bring enthusiasm to many of his fellow Jews and potential Jews, of which there are many in Spain, especially among those who wish to “return” to Judaism because of their families’ association with our faith going back to 1492, when Jews were forcefully expelled from the country or forced to convert.
It is not easy today to be a Jew in Spain. There is a great deal of anti-Semitism, at times even of violent nature. One prospective convert told our Bet Din about the discrimination and physical assaults he experienced because he was wearing a Magen David. Another person told us that she was cut off by her family when she announced that she was going to convert to Judaism. We asked her, “You still want to become Jewish?” “Yes,” she responded, “It is in my soul.”
The next phase of Reform Judaism in Spain will require that each congregation be better organized and have good publicity (e.g. websites), as well as a sound organizational structure, with election of officers, preparation of realistic budgets, yearly congregational meetings and imaginative fund raising campaigns. Reform Jews in Spain will also need a new and common prayer book for Shabbat and festival services. Realizing that money is always tight in these circumstances, I urge world Jewry to take note and help them out.
As for me, I did as much as I could by actually going to Barcelona and spending a few weeks on location the last few years. From now on, I will be available to teach classes through Skype or other media directly from Boston. Now that the European Region of the WUPJ in London considers Spain a priority, I am sure it will continue to provide all the necessary help and services. I am glad to have witnessed this historic development since 2008, and consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to add my own contribution.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino teaches at Boston College and retired from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, in 2003.