What made our trip to Spain so special?
The question hung in the air for a moment as multiple responses went through my mind. At first, it seemed to be such an easy question.
It was a fascinating country to visit, all of our accommodations and arrangements were wonderful, we had an outstanding guide and excellent supplemental guides along the way. But those are the basic building blocks of any good travel experience.
In the realm of the intangible and the unpredictable, we had a remarkable group of 31 people on the trip through Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood: everyone got along with everyone else, there were no cliques, no one was left out, everyone was inclusive, supportive, and accepting of everyone else. The genial camaraderie allowed us all to be at ease, to enjoy each other, to share every experience and to have fun.
There was more. The trip in October was conceived as a Jewish heritage tour and everyone was keenly aware that Spain was home to the most illustrious, productive, accomplished and impressive era in Jewish history since ancient times, until the 20th century in this country and the creation of the state of Israel.
Given all that the Jewish people achieved during the Golden Age of Spain, our sense of loss was strong and personally felt. In most of the places visited, the only remaining indicator Jews were inhabitants was the sole surviving synagogue building or, in the case of Toledo, three synagogue buildings that were restored as historic sites after centuries of use as mosques or churches, or were simply abandoned.
The synagogues stand empty of Jewish worshippers, unused for the last 500 years. They bear powerful testimony to the heights of accomplishment of which we are capable when allowed to live (relatively) freely and the depths of evil and destruction to which humanity can descend.
I had traveled to Spain before – as had others in our group – but for some reason, I had not felt so powerfully the legacy of the Spanish Inquisition. In our touring, the focus of the trip was learning, which helped to bring alive the complex history of the Jews in that country. It may also have been the current state of our world or the support we felt from each other that caused – or allowed – us to feel a visceral sense of horror at what the Inquisition had done.
We also felt extremely fortunate to be able to live openly and proudly as Jews, to enjoy full, rich, meaningful Jewish lives, and to know that we would be returning to a vital, vibrant Jewish community. Thus, we gave thanks, we sang, we prayed, we rejoiced. And we took notice.
The parallels between the Golden Age of Spain and the Golden Age of American Jewry are too close to ignore. We did not avoid the difficult questions as we explored the roots of endemic anti-Semitism. We spoke of Jewish visibility and vulnerability, of the seeming ease with which we are isolated and targeted, of the Jew as the eternal “canary in the mine shaft” of civilization.
We also took note that while Gen. Francisco Franco of Spain was not innocent of evil intent towards Jews, Spain did allow Jewish refugees to travel through the country to safety during World War II. Interestingly, Franco was the only fascist ruler still in power at the end of the war. We also discussed Spain’s relatively recent invitation to descendants of those who were expelled during the Inquisition to return. Anybody who can prove their Spanish Jewish origin has been offered Spanish citizenship.
It was in Toledo and Cordoba, Granada and Barcelona that we felt the spirits of our ancestors and longed to bring their synagogues and communities back to life again. Our synagogue is alive with the voices of children, the songs of our worship, holidays and celebrations, the questions of adults engaged in learning, the debates of our leadership, the compassion of our caring congregants, the calls to social justice and social activism.
Each of us who went to Spain returned renewed and rededicated to the vitality of our synagogue and our community. Each of us feels a responsibility to insure that the benefits that we have received are available to those who come after us.
We left on a trip and returned from an ongoing journey into the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
“Baruch atah Adonai, shomeia tefilah.”
“Blessed are you, Adonai, who hears our prayers, for returning us safely, restoring us to our loved ones, and inspiring us to continue the sacred mission of our people.”
Sarah Sager is cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.