Posted by: Jeff Rubin, Associate Vice President for Communications on 6/5/2007 3:08:00 PM
During spring break my son, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, bumped into another Pitt student in the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. Less than a year before, the two students had been together on a Hillel alternative break in New Orleans where they helped rehabilitate a homeless shelter. The Jewish lesson of New Orleans was clear: tikkun olam. But is there a Jewish lesson to be learned in Spain, a country filled with more Jewish memories than communities?
My son was one of hundreds of Jewish students who elected to spend a semester abroad and outside of Israel. Their objective is to immerse themselves in a foreign culture and become an integral part of our “globalized” world. As they learn about general history, culture, politics, science and art, they can also learn about their own Jewish story, particularly in the countries of Europe. Indeed, these Jewish student pilgrims pose a unique problem for Hillel: To what extent should we and local communities provide a Jewish context to their foreign education? (JTA published an excellent article on this phenomenon.)
Spain offers a unique window on this dilemma. Jewish culture thrived in Spain for 500 years until the Inquisition drove Jews out or underground. The year 1492 is marked as the end of the Jewish community of Spain but the pressure to leave or convert began decades earlier. Jews have trickled back into Spain over the years. Today, the Jewish community still numbers just 40,000 -- too small to sustain outreach to foreign students.
Jewish culture is everywhere and nowhere in Spain. The skyline of Barcelona is dominated by the hill of Montjuic, whose name may connote a long-disappeared Jewish cemetery. Every town has its Judería, or Jewish quarter, but, in most places, there is no Jewish content or community. Seville has two Jewish quarters but too few Jews to hold a public Seder. Walking through the Prado, Madrid’s landmark museum, paintings of the crucifixion carry the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in perfect Hebrew – someone had to teach the painter those words.
Spain is beginning to reclaim its Jewish past. A small Jewish museum has been created in Seville. Toledo and Girona have made extensive efforts to preserve Jewish structures. The government has created a travel itinerary called Caminos de Sefarad, or Sephardic Routes, linking 15 medieval Jewish cities across Spain.
Now a member of the European Union, Spain is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. It is likely that more and more Jewish students will be attracted there. One hopes that as Spain continues to embrace its Jewish heritage, these students will see the still-empty vessel of Jewish life in Spain and ask profound questions about Jewish history in the diaspora. Perhaps they will explore the beauty of Sephardic Jewish culture -- and maybe learn a little Ladino -- the Yiddish of Sephardic Jews -- along with their Español.
Spain offers a Camino Sefarad, a Sephardic route, to Jewish identity, but there are many other paths as well, routes through countries like Germany, Poland, England, Russia, Italy, Greece and more. Should Hillel provide a roadmap?
RE: Taking a Sephardic Route
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