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By: Frieda Haber
Three countries in eight days: Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar.
That was the plan when 28 girls and four chaperones from Magen David Yeshivah High School boarded the plane on Sunday,
November 13th. The goal, during the Sephardic Heritage trip, was to experience the history of our ancestors in a unique and memorable way.
The first stop was the Sha’are Tikva Synagogue in Lisbon, Portugal. There, the girls had a chance to hear from the leader of the Portuguese Jewish community of Lisbon, Isaac Assor. He spoke about the rich history of the Portuguese Jewish community, as well as what current life in the Jewish Portuguese community is like. Sadly, there are many Shabbatot when the synagogue is short a few congregants and can’t form a minyan for prayers. It’s also a tremendous challenge to keep kosher in Lisbon. The Jews of Lisbon only get kosher meat once every two months and have to spend extra time while grocery shopping, searching for foods that contain certain kosher ingredients. Hearing this, MDY students were so appreciative of what we have in our Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn: full synagogues on every block and a kosher grocery store on every corner.
Next, students visited two pre-Inquisition synagogues – buildings with beautiful structures and complex histories. They even had the opportunity to pray in one of these shuls, elevating their tefilot. Overall, the first day of the trip was steeped in both history and spirituality.
The next day, the girls had the chance to meet with a Crypto-Jew, otherwise known as a Morano. Crypto-Jews pretended to be conversos during the Spanish Inquisition but still kept Judaism in hiding and passed it down through the generations. As this Crypto-Jew told students, when he was growing up, he and his family believed that they were the only Jews left on earth. He grew up in fear of practicing Judaism in public. As he got older, he and his family grew more exposed and less sheltered. They learned that there were indeed many other Jews in the world, and converted to Orthodox Judaism. They now practice Judaism as we Sepharadim do, the only difference being that the older members of the community pray in Portuguese. The second day ended with breathtaking views from a 14th-century castle, followed by a long bus ride to Spain.
The time spent in Spain was the highlight of the trip. The girls toured both the Santa Maria la Blana Synagogue and the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo and marveled at the interiors: The walls of these synagogues displayed intricate plaster craftsmanship containing perakim of Tehillim.
Following that, students had an impromptu zip lining experience across a breathtaking river. Then, they visited Plaza de Mayor where they said aperek of Tehillim in honor of all our ancestors whose lives were cut short there. Afterwards, they had the opportunity to shop in the Times Square of Madrid.
The next day, the girls returned to their spiritual roots, visiting the house in Cordoba where Rambam grew up. Then they were challenged to a hike around Medinat al-Zhara – ruins from a hidden, ninth-century royal city. All of this was accomplished before crossing the border to Gibraltar on Thursday night.
Gibraltar, a small country connected to Europe, was memorable in and of itself. Gibraltar was built upon a huge rock and the girls had the chance to take a bus up to the top of the rock. This was followed by a visit to Europa’s Point, the only spot in the world in which a person can see three continents at once. Next, the girls had a chance to take part in classic Gibraltarian life: They shopped around the country’s main street and even saw the kosher grocery store and bakery.
On Shabbat, the girls were lucky enough to pray in two different synagogues in Gibraltar. As it turns out, Gibraltarian Jews pray the same words as us Syrian Jews do, but with different tunes. Shabbat was spent walking around the small country and enjoying the sights.
By Sunday, with the trip nearly over, the girls sought to take in more beauty. The scenic palaces and plazas did not disappoint.
At last, Monday afternoon arrived, and it was time to fly home. The girls boarded the plane with not only gifts in hand but also experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.