The Foundation for the Preservation of the Western Sephardic Tradition (facebook group)

David Ramirez
Suggestions for the Preservation of Western Sephardic Tradition

To all Jews for the Preservation of Western Sephardic tradition,

My apologies for not paying attention to this, William, as other current objectives has kept me away from this very important subject. After recently reviewing the posts in this group, I want to contribute with my suggestions, all of which can only be enacted by a concerted group effort among us who really have in their heart to rescue our traditions from oblivion. I want to say all the following in the most unapologetic straightforward manner, and not without the intention to offend anyone, but to show truth wherever I find it.

Before I proceed to give my suggestions, I want to give my opinion about how we got to the stage of disrepair we are currently experiencing. First of, the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish (hereto on referred as “S&P”) communities were never very numerous to begin with, and being that our kehilót were relatively wealthy, this in part contributed to the low birth-rate among us. The decline of new Converso arrivals during the 18th c., coincidently the epoch when the Inquisition was abating their activities, further declined the constancy of a S&P majority.

Adding to our faulty demographics, the crisis of belief during the 19th century also brought with it a separation and dilution of the S&P tradition in several communities, especially across the Americas. Less and less we acted with the cross-continental unity that once characterized us, and our mutual logistic and economic fraternity that once were markers of our strength. With the exception of Amsterdam, all other communities sought to keep afloat by accepting more and more Forasteros into our kehilót, which slowly changed their constituencies and therefore the objectives and support of native S&P institutions of education and ssedaqá. In the post-WWII era, much of the remaining S&P moved outside their communities in search of better economic opportunities or made Aliyáh moved by our ancient desire to live in Israel.

The evil Nazi regime shot a deathblow to the still stronger Amsterdam community, and Sephardic rabbis everywhere sought to smooth out our differences with our more numerous and ever more influential Ashkenazi coreligionists – thus enabling our religious assimilation to them, which coupled with the nationalists priorities of the nascent State of Israel, completely disbanded the last institutions of religious learning we had left.

The results of these both voluntary and involuntary historical circumstances have left the remaining S&P communities as shells of their former selves, an entire generation of rabbis not trained in natively-grown Sephardic institutions with traditional Sephardic prerogatives; a dispersed S&P Jewry, much of whom are not religiously committed, and a lot more ignoring both the history and traditions of S&P Jewry; some even ashamed of originating from this tradition, and worse yet, a cynicism informing the tradition has no chance of surviving.

So why is it important to come to its rescue, and how do we begin to remedy the situation?

After the Expulsions from Iberia, two distinct Sephardic traditions sprung from those Jews first settling elsewhere in Europe – more specifically in Italy –, and those settling through the Levant and the Maghreb. Those Sephardim remaining in Europe were more inclined to the traditional Talmudist and rationalist schools of thought akin to Maimonides’ own, whereas for Eastern and North African Sephardim were more influenced by Zoharic-mystical thought.

The S&P tradition, which started just with a handful of returning Conversos, developed mostly under the tutelage of Italian Sephardim, and soon created more communities across the Netherlands, northern Italy, Germany, and eventually England, France and the Americas, with some outpost in Africa and East Asia. Being part of the ebullient mercantile and intellectual scene of late Renaissance Europe, the S&P communities became the most successful of Jewish communities of their time, both in economic and intellectual terms.

The two things above mentioned rendered a tradition that continued the Middle-Path approach to Toráh of old Sefarad and, uncharacteristic of Jewish communities before or since, formed a vast global network of S&P communities united in common bonds of custom, fraternity and purpose. This tradition was able to successfully navigate the changing currents that modernization brought, while clinging to traditional Jewish prerogatives, just as we have done elsewhere in our history.

In our current environment of assimilation to a fierce secularism or obtuse religiosity, S&P tradition offers solutions that meet evolving challenges, through the study of its communal and rabbinical legacy. This answers why we should come to its rescue, which should not only be seen in terms of nostalgia, but essential to Jewish survival.

To begin to remedy our state of disrepair, first and foremost we need to create awareness. Being that our problems stem much from our dispersion as much for the lack of knowledge, we lack proper support and the sense that preserving S&P tradition is of any necessity.

These suggestions take the shape of creating awareness, which leads to interest, which leads to support, which leads to the creation of bigger and more concrete projects and demands for and to institutions, common unity and future growth. This without alienating any current idiosyncratic ways communities or individuals may have, but through fomenting the very value of the S&P tradition and the impact this can have in enhancing or presenting better alternatives to what they currently have and experience. All without loosing sight that the heart and essence of the once successful S&P tradition lies in the spiritual guidance that our rabbinical and communal leaders were able to create and sustain for over three centuries.

For the stage of awareness (A), I recommend the following:

1a. As it has been already suggested, the creation of a central website is a great idea, where Jews for the Preservation of the Western Sephardic tradition can upload any type of written, auditory or visual material pertaining to this tradition, and which can be essential for the education and know-how of communities and individuals. Ideally, this should be done through the website of the Ets Haim Library-Livraria Montezinos in Amsterdam, and if not, in the beginning through an independently created website for that purpose.

2a. To create a dedicated YouTube site, where to load video presentations created for the very purpose to disseminate vignettes and key features of the S&P tradition, relating its history, major personalities – their works and contributions, customs and music. Besides being informative, this material in turn can serve to give on the fly presentations to educational institutions, philanthropists, or to anyone able to contribute in any shape or form, to garner more value-added support.

3a. To start disseminating the idea at the grassroots level among those already belonging to the historic and existing S&P congregations to create an umbrella organization, formed as a League of S&P Congregations or the Federation of S&P Communities, where we can once again start connecting the international bonds we once had among all communities, S&P and philo-Sephardim worldwide.

If and when interest (B) is created through the promotion of awareness, the tentative schedule emanating from the very historic communities, working independently or in tandem, is suggested as follows:

1b. To begin documenting, organizing and cataloguing all surviving textual, audio and visual material of each and every community, and perhaps scanning key material – like homilies, responsa or community resolutions – to be put on line.

2b. To start making a campaign, and funding support, for the digitalization of all or at least important works contained in the Ets Haim-Livraria Montezinos, for easy on-line access and study of all interested.

3b. To form committees that will speak to major educational institutions in their respective countries, fomenting the inclusion of this material in their already existing Jewish Studies departments (if available), or to create separate chairs of Western Sephardic studies for the learning and investigation of this very material as it pertains to their locale or region, with the addition of offering scholarships for this very purpose.

Once having created the interest that leads to support (C), the quality of our leadership will only be reflected by the quality of those who choose them. In other words, a well-informed community of its past, and the value of such past, can and will be able to demand better institutions of learning and communal framework.