Alba Toscano knows how to make things grow. Her academic training is in agriculture but for the past two decades she’s been nurturing the Jewish community of Valencia, Spain. Toscano is the president and founder of the Sinagoga La Javura Conservative and Masorti synagogue.
Leslie Floyd, a former president of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Penn., was intrigued by Toscano’s lively posts made on a listserv for presidents of Conservative congregations. When Toscano wrote that she would be happy to visit synagogues when she’s in the U.S. and tell them about La Javura, Floyd jumped at the opportunity. They were not disappointed by her inspiring story of hard work and dedication.
Toscano, now in her late 60s, came to Valencia in October 1988 for a two-year post-doctorate agricultural research fellowship with the Spanish ministry of education and science. She never left.
But the Jewish community she found there was largely Moroccan and their synagogue, Comunidad Israelita de Valencia, did not work for her. “They are what I call an ethnic-client synagogue,” she said in a talk on May 16 at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Penn. “They gang together and help people out businesswise. People come not for spiritual succor or psychological tools to help them get through life or enjoy and express the philosophy we live as Jews.”
Another synagogue served a mostly Argentinian population, and then there was Chabad. But she had something else in mind.
She thought long and hard — actually for five years — about starting a Conservative synagogue, and when she finally began in 1997, they congregated in the tiny bedroom of her rented apartment, furnished with a table, chairs, the Hertz chumash, the Sim Shalom prayer book, and a Spanish translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Her first step in building a congregation was developing a web page in Spanish, with help from Marty Kunoff of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. To make sure the site had content, she included weekly divrei Torah from Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and contacted Jews in South America and elsewhere willing to translate Schorsch into Spanish and French. She found 21 volunteers and also collected “every public telephone number for every Jewishy kind of organization in Europe.” When the page went live, people started to contact her.
Today La Javura has 52 paying individual members.
“To be a pioneer and stay and build a synagogue over quicksand — it’s a hard sell,” she said, explaining that people are attracted to a vibrant congregation. “If you have a problem, you want to talk to somebody.”
Early on she recognized the need for activities. The first program was a Tu b’Shvat seder, open to the public, and free of charge except for entry to the botanical garden where it was held. To date, they’ve held the seder 21 times.
As they began to attract members, La Javura needed a bigger space. Toscano’s mother, who is now 87, had a medical scare and decided to give Toscano her inheritance before she died. Toscano took the money, put aside what she thought she would need to live for the next 20 years, and put the rest into a foundation for La Javura.
Toscano then bought a building where she would live and would also serve as La Javura’s home. She gutted it and added an industrial kitchen, but kept it a largely open space. “I live there, but you don’t even see my toothbrush,” she said of the space that she moved into in December. “The shower is there so we can have people who come and have nowhere to stay.”
La Javura holds holiday and kabbalat Shabbat services. On Friday nights, live attendees are joined by people tuning in on Skype. As part of the service they read aloud the Torah portion, with even those on Skype taking their turn.
They use a siddur from Argentina that is an egalitarian Spanish translation of the Conservative movement’s Silverman siddur. Even though there is a transliteration of the Hebrew, Toscano said, “I insist that everyone learn Hebrew.”
Toscano also amassed a library. She has collected books from wherever she can: the Association of Jewish Libraries, Israel, half a container of books from Argentina, and from visitors. And she shops herself; for her latest trip to the United States, she donated her clothes to charity so that on her return trip “my little suitcase will be filled with books.”
Another missing piece was a Torah. “We felt the only way to raise our category in the universe was to have a sefer Torah,” Toscano said. She learned that after pharmaceutical company Upjohn left Kalamazoo, Mich., a local synagogue had shrunk and was selling a Torah. In the end they offered her two, and she created a me’il, or mantle, for each out of silk brocade. One went to her friend’s synagogue in Orviedo, Spain.
Toscano earned her doctorate in agricultural chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and taught English in the 1970s. In the ’80s she worked in the Matagalpa Nicaragua Agricultural Research Station developing soil analysis methods, and in the 1990s she began her research fellowship in heavy metal analysis in Valencia.
Closing the session, Toscano shared her feelings about Judaism and God. “Judaism is a feeling within a person and how you define God and how you define death,” she said. For her, God is “a synergic energy that you all feel when you come together and feel a critical mass building up among you.”
Creating a synagogue, she said, was a way for her to bring together the “synergic energy of people who wanted to be together, who wanted to change the world in an eentsy way, but could only do it together.”