On Saturday night, March 12, Bet Shalom congregation of Barcelona celebrated its 10th anniversary with the dedication of a new sanctuary.
Bet Shalom is an emerging liberal synagogue that is affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ). It has been my privilege to work with them for many years, and to witness their steady growth in a country that has a small Jewish community but a glorious past history in the Jewish world. For many, it is almost a “mother country.”
My wife and I went to Barcelona first in June, 2008, and worked with Bet Shalom’s lay leadership to give shape to a new movement. A few Rabbis preceded our arrival, each one spending a limited time in the country. The Jewish community in Barcelona is small. Presently, in addition to Bet Shalom, there is an Orthodox Jewish center, a Chabad group and another small progressive synagogue called Atid. I see Bet Shalom as a dynamic, forward thinking, and community oriented. Jai [pronounced as Hai) Anguita, the President, is its indefatigable lay leader, and Maria Prieto Manzanares functions as its representative vis-a-vis the world Jewish community. About 60-70 families are now associated with it.
Since 2008, we have traveled to Barcelona a number of times, and stayed there short periods of time leading services, teaching classes, and giving public lectures on Judaism. I have also done a few weddings, and participated in many rabbinic courts (with Rabbis coming from London) regarding conversions, and I always returned to the States more energized and hopeful for the future. The congregation is now fortunate to have Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, a graduate of the Reconstructionist seminary, as its religious leader, who from now on will be able to spend a few weeks at a time working with different branches of the congregation.
The new and spacious sanctuary is located in the area called Gracia, not too far away from the famous Sagrada Familia, the church that was designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1936) but still not finished. The celebration attracted many local dignitaries, representatives of other Jewish institutions and Mrs. Miriam Kramer, the Chairperson of EUPJ who came from London. After Havdalah and dedication, which Rabbi Berkowitz and I conducted in Spanish, the congregation and guests, numbering in over 100 people, enjoyed a lovely meal and danced for many hours. They now have a new pulpit and are in the process of getting a new ark that will house the single Torah I brought to them a few years ago. During the rest of the week, I also taught a class on Jewish God concepts to the participants of Introduction to Judaism class, and gave a public lecture on the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Spain in now granting citizenship to anyone who can prove a link to the Jewish community that was expelled in the past.
I am very proud of my association with Beth Shalom and hope that with local and international help, it will continue to grow in number and stature, even encouraging others to follow its steady path. Already a few progressive groups are functioning in Madrid and other cities, and look to Bet Shalom for guidance. Spain is emerging again as a new Jewish light. I only hope they go from strength to strength.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.