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Shul hopping in a ‘beacon of tolerance’

Gibraltarians arrive for Sunday services at the Great Synagogue — Sha’ar Hashamayim.     
Gibraltarians arrive for Sunday services at the Great Synagogue — Sha’ar Hashamayim.     

Two couples from Marlboro — Bella and Simon Zelingher and Barbara and Hal Crane — recently participated in a 15-day Jewish Heritage Tour of Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar sponsored by the Israeli company Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours. They were joined by Israeli, British, South African, and American tour participants and an Israeli guide. Both couples are affiliated with Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan and support and attend services at Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro.

Bella Scharf Zelingher gives an account of a major highlight of the tour: Gibraltar.

Having several synagogues in very close proximity to one another is not unusual in Jerusalem, B’nei Brak, or Brooklyn. But what a surprise to find in tiny Gibraltar four synagogues, all within just a few blocks of each other! We had the pleasure of visiting and praying in each of them during Shabbat. 

We had by that point completed half our tour — in Spain — and had learned so much about the Jews’ Golden Age; the at times turbulent, at times calm relationship with the Christians and the Moors; their ultimate expulsion from Catholic Spain in 1492; and the forced conversions of those who stayed behind. We had already seen the sites of so many former Juderias (Jewish ghettos) and so many synagogues that had “once been and are no longer.” So it was a delight, for a change, to experience a Jewish community that is vital, dynamic, and very much alive in, of all places, Gibraltar. Given the charm and hospitality of the community, we were immensely impressed and labeled it a “Jewish paradise.” 

A British territory, Gibraltar is just 2.3 square miles in size, situated on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula and bordered on the north by Andalusia in Spain. 

Jews have lived in the area, on and off, since the 14th century. After their expulsion from Spain, many Jews left for Morocco. In the early 18th century the British won Gibraltar from Spain and eventually Jews were allowed to enter the area again, many of them returning from Morocco. 

By the 19th century, however, the Jewish population had dwindled and later, after their evacuation during World War II for military strategic reasons, many chose not to return. Then, in the 1950s the remaining community was faced with a slackening religious practice. A dynamic new chief rabbi — Josef Pacifici — arrived and revolutionized Jewish education and religious observance, and over the years the community has adopted a nearly 100 percent Orthodox character, with everyone involved and active. 

Over the years, Gibraltar’s Jews have largely thrived and have made contributions to the local culture, defense, and government and contributed greatly to Gibraltar’s prosperity. 

The Gibraltar Jewish community appears very proud of their accomplishments. They averted assimilation and revitalized their identity and observance. We learned from community leaders that the Jewish population has been growing in recent years. It now numbers 750 but has an infrastructure to support a much larger community, with several Hebrew day schools and high schools. Many Jewish families from Spain are now joining the community, lured by the availability of a day school education. 

Plus, there are four synagogues to choose from! The Great Synagogue (Sha’ar Hashamayim) is the oldest, established in the early 1700s; the Little Synagogue (Ets Hayim) was built in 1759; the Flemish Synagogue (Nefutsot Yehuda) is the most ornate, built in 1799 during a time of great prosperity; and the Abudarham Synagogue is more casual, built in 1820 as a “breakaway” by new immigrants from Morocco. All the synagogues are Sephardi and Orthodox and each has an active congregation. Daily services are held at each on a rotating basis, run by the congregants themselves. Rabbi Ron Hasid — who became chief rabbi of the community in 1984 — officiates at all four synagogues. 

The gabbai of the Great Synagogue told us that with the birth of his first grandchild his family can now count 11 generations in Gibraltar. So can a number of the community’s other Jewish families. The almost complete lack of official anti-Semitism at any time inspired Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, to declare at Gibraltar’s tercentenary celebration of the English takeover of the rock, “In the dark times of expulsion and inquisition, Gibraltar lit the beacon of tolerance.” 

Jews in Gibraltar are very hospitable, offering Shabbat meals in their homes to tourists. In shul, we were asked by several people if we wanted an invitation for a meal. (Our guide had arranged for us to have our Shabbat meals at the home of a local kosher caterer.) 

Gibraltar recently has become a “tax haven” and an international financial center and many Jews are involved in this sector as attorneys. Others practice in the fields of medicine, dentistry, engineering, architecture, and accounting; the rest are in business, including the thriving shipping industry. Several downtown stores — selling perfume and jewelry — are Jewish-owned. 

Jewish social life revolves around Shabbat. Jewish shops are all closed downtown, and Main Street becomes a promenade where community members walk and greet each other before heading to their Shabbat meals. Our group loved strolling along this avenue, wishing the many Jewish families we encountered a “Shabbat Shalom” as they walked by in their Sabbath finery and kipot. We were delighted to experience such a wonderful, magical Shabbat in such an unexpected place. 

Visiting Jewish communities all over the world has made us realize how we Jews — despite differences in tradition and background — are all “one people.” To learn more about my trip, contact me at bswebworks@aol.com

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