International travel tip: Put a little ‘Jewish’ in your plans

International travel tip: Put a little ‘Jewish’ in your plans

Victor Sorensenn, right, director of the Barcelona Jewish community, with the author at the Els Quatre Gats restaurant, a favorite of Pablo Picasso.
Victor Sorensenn, right, director of the Barcelona Jewish community, with the author at the Els Quatre Gats restaurant, a favorite of Pablo Picasso.

My wife and I recently returned from a short visit to Barcelona, the regional capital of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, the third most visited city in Europe after London and Paris. Barcelona is the home of the best Picasso museum in the world, beautiful beaches, delicious tapas, and spectacular Antoni Gaudi architecture. Gaudi’s famous unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, as well as the homes he designed, are truly breathtaking.

Yet, for me, the most meaningful moment of the trip occurred in a nondescript little room that housed a centuries-old mikvah in Girona, a small town about 63 miles outside of Barcelona with a long and distinguished Jewish history (Girona was home of the great Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, better known as the Ramban) — until the expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Sitting alone next to a ritual bath used by Jews during the era of the Inquisition, I contemplated both the vibrancy of Jewish life and the tremendous suffering our Jewish brothers and sisters experienced in medieval Spain. And I wept, quietly.

We also had an opportunity to spend time with Victor Sorensenn, the young and energetic professional director of the Jewish Community of Barcelona, which serves the function like that of a Jewish federation.  There are approximately 10,000 Jews living in and near the city today. With almost perfect English, he gave us a fascinating tour of the old Jewish quarter of the city (“the Call”).   Afterward, we sat down over coffee at the historic Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats) restaurant, which 17-year-old Pablo Picasso frequented with his artist friends beginning in 1899.

Sorensenn told us about Mozaika, “a new initiative that seeks to transmit the rich legacy of the Catalan-Jewish community, both medieval and contemporary. There is a void, especially regarding reconstruction of the Jewish community in the 20th century after the absence of Jews for 500 years.” A government-sponsored network called Caminos de Sefarad, or Sephardic Routes, connects 15 medieval Jewish communities across Spain, including Girona, as a distinct travel itinerary. However, he said, “The network focuses on Jewish history exclusively in the Middle Ages, and does not address the modern Jewish community.” In fact, this coming year will mark the Catalan-Jewish community’s centennial; the first organizational structure serving as a social, educational, cultural, and religious meeting point for Catalan Jewry was established in 1917.

Sorensenn, whom we discovered shares my love of rugby, said he and his fellow Catalan Jews are eager to engage with their brethren from around the world, particularly those in the United States. “We have great interest in dialogues with our visitors,” Sorensenn said. “They can be revealing and inspiring experiences, and can help us understand the current Jewish reality. Links established between people may also lead to links between communities.”

Upon my return, I discussed the importance of visiting Jewish communities, both current and historical, with my friend Will Recant, who has been a senior professional at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for many years. Will shared my enthusiasm.

“I have had the pleasure of visiting Jewish communities from Argentina to Siberia and it has been wonderful sharing in their unique culture, traditions, and customs,” Recant said. “We bring a special sense of solidarity when visiting small, remote, and sometimes isolated communities. From the grandeur of the Dohane synagogue in Budapest to the small congregation in Santiago, Cuba, there is a palpable sense of belonging and Jewish peoplehood when we share local Jewish culture and traditions with our Jewish brothers and sisters around the globe.”

Genesia Kamen, president of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) New Jersey Metro Region, recently returned from an AJC trip to Central European countries, highlighted by the opening of the organization’s office in Warsaw. Echoing Recant’s comments, she told me that the trip included interactions with Jewish leaders rediscovering their Jewish roots after many decades of Communist rule when religion was suppressed. “These Jews live in small, but growing Jewish communities,” she said, “and particularly appreciate our solidarity and emotional support.” Kamen, who said that although years ago she wouldn’t have thought of including a Jewish dimension during international vacations, now makes a point of doing so.

A word of caution from Recant: It’s imperative to consider security before you go. “It is important to connect with local communities before any visit so they know in advance who you are and when you will be visiting,” he said. To wit, a friend recently told me that he showed up at a synagogue in Singapore on a Friday afternoon and asked to meet with the rabbi and see the sanctuary. He was turned away by security guards because he hadn’t made an appointment.  

Hundreds of local Chabad centers around the world can help individuals on the road, especially with access to kosher food and prayer services. But it’s not the only option. One good resource for Jewish students studying abroad who want to reach out to the local Jewish community is KAHAL. Founded in 2013 as part of the World Union of Jewish Students, this organization now works with hundreds of students, “connecting them to immersive Jewish experiences and opportunities to deepen their Jewish identity,” according to the KAHAL website.

For those of us who, like me, are out of school but inclined to incorporate a Jewish component on a future trip abroad, our local federations are a great place to start. Dov Ben-Shimon, Keith Krivitzky, and Mark Merkovitz, executives at the Greater MetroWest, Heart of New Jersey, and Princeton-Mercer-Bucks federations respectively, all told me their agencies are prepared to facilitate connections with Jewish communities around the world. With its extensive international operations, AJC is a valuable resource, as well.

Nationally and locally organized Jewish-themed trips have proliferated in recent years. Some, mostly in Eastern and Central Europe, are oriented toward tracing Jewish genealogy. Others are intended to create linkages among Jewish communities. However, most American Jews when they travel abroad do so purely for leisure or business purposes. As I realized while sitting by a more than 500-year-old mikvah, these kinds of trips can be enhanced by including some “Jewish” in the itinerary.

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