The Growth of Progressive Judaism in Barcelona

Inside Sinagoga Mayor; screenshot
Inside Sinagoga Mayor; screenshot

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

The ancient roots of Judaism in Barcelona are in the foundations and walls of the Sinagoga Mayor, believed to be, so asserts Dyana Z. Furmansky, the oldest synagogue in Europe. Furmansky writes that the excavation of the structure began in 1996 when Miguel Iaffa, a Jewish Argentinean businessman, purchased it before it was to be demolished by the city. A year later, the Associació Call de Barcelona was set up to support and manage the project, made up of local dignitaries and historians from across the political and religious spectrum, united by a shared concern for the preservation of Catalan Jewish heritage.

This initiative to capture and restore the Jewish heritage of Barcelona, intriguingly, arose at a time when the very face of contemporary Judaism in the city was changing. For many years, Jewish life in Barcelona had circled around the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, the Orthodox community set up in 1954. By this time, the Jewish community of Barcelona was a mixture of Sephardim from north Africa and a combination of Ashkenazim and Sephardim who had emigrated from South America, especially Argentina. It remains the sole Orthodox institution in Barcelona (though Chabad also has a presence in the city.)

Since the beginning of the 1990s, however, growth has been experienced primarily in progressive Judaism in Barcelona. The first Reform community, Atid, was set up in 1992. This congregation saw itself – and still sees itself today – as part of a rebirth of Judaism in Barcelona, albeit of a Judaism that in some way “responds to the challenges of our times, with dynamic Judaism, strengthening our identity, enriching our lives and contributing to society.” They perceive themselves as “a link in a chain, connected by ties of history and memory, origin and destination” to older, extinguished Jewish communities in Barcelona as well as modern communities across Europe.

The progressive Jewish community, Bet Shalom, broke off from Atid following a schism in 2007. Egalitarian and open, Bet Shalom has positioned itself slightly to the left of Atid, one might say, with the spectrum of Judaism. The congregation’s identifying marks are, they state, “experimenting and passing on our religious tradition as part of a community, studying, teaching and spreading the Jewish culture, engaging in social action and actively participating in Catalan society.” Bet Shalom is concerned with inter-religious dialogue, the ongoing struggle with and against anti-Semitism, and “the defense of civil rights, equality, liberty, tolerance, and democratic and human rights values” including LGBT rights.

That it is progressive Judaism that has blossomed in Barcelona in recent years can be explained in a number of ways, beyond the more general demand heard across Europe for something other than Orthodoxy and a kind of Judaism that blends tradition and modernity and takes account of demographic changes in European Jewish communities. The first, and key to the emergence of Bet Shalom in particular, was an additional wave of emigration from Argentina to Spain, including Barcelona, in the first years of the twenty-first century at a time of tremendous economic uncertainty in that country.

“These Latin American newcomers diversified but also divided the community,” Danna Harman reported for Ha’aretz last year. They ended up “creating their own unofficial institutions and community bases, better suited to their more laid-back, less religiously observant backgrounds and cultures,” including Bet Shalom. The Orthodox Judaism of the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, or even the Reform version presented by Atid, did not suit them, in short, and also the balance between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Barcelona necessitated the foundation of new communities to accommodate different rites and traditions.

Second, the diversity of the Barcelona Jewish community further fed in the growth of progressive Judaism, in that there was an evident need for greater openness and accommodation of mixed marriages and what are sometimes termed Jews by choice: in other words, converts. Harman met in Barcelona Paul Murga, a laywer in his mid-30s who was “born into a Christian family in Peru and underwent conversion at a Reform synagogue in Barcelona. He later married someone from the local community, an Argentinean of mixed Spanish and Hungarian descent.” Murga is just one example of either someone who has a Jewish root returning to Judaism or someone inclined towards Judaism or harboring a Jewish feeling converting.

In her travelogue, Furmansky recalled “the high point” of a recent visit to Barcelona: “the ‘rebirth’ of five Conversos at Sinagoga Mayor. Rabbi Ariel Edery read excerpts from the fifteenth century Siddur de los Conversos Catalanos, written in old Catalan and Hebrew, which was unearthed during the synagogue’s excavation. The men, “formerly Catholic, completed their conversion to Judaism by being called up to the Torah to chant their first aliyot. They had traced their lineage back centuries to Spanish Jewish ancestors.” Gradually, Judaism is reemerging and diversifying in Barcelona, and while the Sinagoga Mayor provides a kind of spiritual center point, the real interest and growth now is in progressive Judaism, something that looks set to continue.