Spanish Citizenship for Sephardim: Recent Reflections

imageedit_2_6350066144Earlier today, I received a private message from a good friend of mine regarding my posting of Ezra Bessaroth’s role in facilitating the first step in helping those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law.

First, I want to praise my friend on his choice to message me privately and not engage in a back-and-forth debate on Facebook over this issue; he felt that this would unnecessarily expose me to public criticism. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Rabbi. I didn’t want to write this on your wall because I didn’t want to even imply a public criticism of you, but I have to say I’m surprised given what I know about your attitude toward Eretz Yisrael to see you encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain. Do you need see nothing problematic about that? Isn’t Spain the wrong country for Jews who want to add a second citizenship? Has Ezzy Bezzy made a similar promotional push (maybe you have) for its members becoming citizens of Israel (i.e. aliyah)?”

The point is well-taken.

Some background: When my good friends, Joe and Doreen Alhadeff, approached me with news of their involvement in promoting the new law – and having Ezra Bessaroth approved to attest to a person’s Sephardic ancestry – I asked myself whether I wanted at all to be party to encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain.

Over and above the issue of promoting this path (instead of encouraging Aliyah to Israel) there’s the question of whether we should align ourselves with a campaign that tries to redress the wrongs of the past – specifically, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and all that this tragedy entailed. In June of 2014, Rabbi Marc Angel, himself a native of Seattle and a student of Sephardic history posted a critical piece on his blog. In part, it read,

How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors? Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?….It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages. Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.

Why promote Spain at all without full teshuva?
Shouldn’t we first prioritize assisting Jews to become citizens of Israel?

My personal response to both questions: I, too, am troubled by the failure of nations – many of them European – to learn the lessons of the past. I too, feel that Spain should show its concern for Sephardim by supporting the State of Israel. For whatever it’s worth, though, I do feel that the public declaration of responsibility for the expulsion from Spain is of significance. Though it falls short of what we would like to see – in my view, it does have some incremental value. It may at least qualify as “Hirhurei Teshuva”….if not complete teshuva!

To my friend’s point: Last time I checked, there is strong basis for saying that we fulfill a Torah mitzvah by living in Eretz Yisrael…and not in Spain. As someone whose offspring and offspring’s offspring presently live in the Land of Israel, and who himself hopes one day to return even if the Mashiach has not yet arrived by that time….I personally spare no efforts in making it a priority to financially support pro-Israel causes as well as assist those who have been victims of Arab terror. I am also a proud trustee of the Samis Foundation, whose meaningful philanthropy works to address some of the core social issues in Israeli society. Our congregation stands at the forefront of the Seattle community in its Israel programming, even in the face of expressed disdain by so-called “progressive” elements in our community who would prefer to see us make room for organizations which overtly and covertly undermine the IDF and the Jewish state……

Our involvement in helping establish Sephardic identity for those interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship should not be seen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of what I’ve written above. The messages delivered in our local Orthodox Jewish day schools, in synagogue shiurim, from the pulpit, in yearly programming – including scholars-in-residence throughout our community – are unequivocal. Anyone wishing to make Aliyah knows exactly where to go and would not only be fully supported – but publicly applauded for making the commitment! (One of my mechutanim is even a Nefesh B’Nefesh counsellor….I have her phone number and email!)

But alas, we live in a very complex age. With all the good work of our Jewish schools, only 5% of Seattle’s Jewish children are enrolled in day-school Jewish education. Intermarriage rates across the country are soaring, and the Sephardim of Seattle and elsewhere are not immune.

I reflect on my own decision, 35 years ago, to become more Jewishly connected. It started with a bowl of chicken soup at the Shabbat table of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pritzker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It continued with Herman Wouk’s “This is My G-d” and Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions.” It could have stopped there, with the soup and the interesting reading…..

For the Sephardim of Seattle and around the world, Sephardic culture plays a huge role in the formation and maintenance of identity. Do I believe that bourekas and bulemas are the essence of Sephardic Jewish identity? Of course not! But do these foods play some role in maintaining even a tenuous link to tradition …. that could eventually blossom into a deeper connection?


Faced with the reality of the Spanish citizenship option for Sephardim, I think that the question for a community rabbi becomes: Is facilitating the Spanish citizenship process a potential portal of entry for less affiliated Jews to open their eyes to the past, to look at themselves anew as a link in the chain of Jewish history? Perhaps the applicants had not grappled with the devotion of those ancestors who resisted the Inquisitor’s threat of death and the commitment to living a Jewish life implicit in this sacrifice. How many unaffiliated Jews have truly meditated upon the evidence of a Divine hand guiding Jewish history both before and after the expulsion?

And so, I feel that the necessary research involved in uncovering the details of one’s Sephardic Jewish roots may well be an eye-opening experience that paves the way for some more profound introspection.

I’m comfortable being a partner in this process.

RCA Issues Clarification of Its Position on Abuse

June 12, 2013 — The RCA remains steadfast in combating and condemning all forms of abuse. We are encouraged by the process that led to the guilty plea of Yosef Kolko, an Orthodox Jew who pleaded guilty for the sexual molestation of a young boy. For many years the RCA has condemned the efforts of many parts of the Jewish community to cover up or ignore allegations of abuse, viewing these efforts as against Jewish law, illegal, and irresponsible to the welfare of victims and the greater community. The RCA strongly advocates, as a matter of Jewish law, the reporting of reasonable suspicions of all forms of child abuse to the civil authorities and full cooperation with the criminal justice system. The RCA decries any invocation of Jewish law or communal interests as tools in silencing victims or witnesses from reporting abuse or from receiving therapeutic and communal support.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, President of the RCA, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, concerned with the reported position of Rabbi Yisrael Belsky in the Kolko case met with Rabbi Belsky. Rabbi Belsky stated that based upon his knowledge of the case, which he explained at length, he deeply believes in Kolko’s innocence. When asked for clarification of his opinion concerning the reporting of suspicions of abuse in general, Rabbi Belsky informed us that he favors the reporting of credible suspicions of abuse directly to the civil authorities without the need to seek prior rabbinic permission. Upon our request, Rabbi Belsky recorded this position in writing in a letter sent to us and publicized a week after our meeting. Many feel that this is a significant achievement.

The RCA appreciates that this distinguished scholar has gone on record with this position, a position that echoes the RCA’s longstanding policy. We are confident that this statement will be helpful to many victims in the future. Nevertheless, due to the facts of the Kolko case as we understand them, the RCA disagrees with Rabbi Belsky’s defense of this admitted perpetrator. We pledge to work toward the time when all victims of abuse will find strength, healing, and justice with the support of their communities, its members, and its leaders.

Ha-Rav Shlomo Aviner’s Eulogy for Ha-Rav Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth ztz”l: The Gaon “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata”

On the 3rd of Tammuz, at the age of 86, Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth ztz”l ascended on high, after many years of learning and teaching Torah.  The book “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata” requires no advertising.  It is found in virtually every home of G-d-fearing Jews, and is used by Torah scholars and the masses alike.

But his genius is virtually unknown.  People do not know that he wrote other books: Kitzur Dinei Shemitah Karkaot (Concise Laws of Shemitah), Ohel Sarah – On the Laws of Family Purity, Chinuch Ha-Banim Le-Mitzvot (Educating Children for Mitzvot), an halachic guide for nurses in hospitals and tens of articles and hundreds of halachic ruling quoted in other books.

And his traits were those of a great Torah scholar – humble, inconspicuous and not out for publicity.  He did not speak about himself but devoted all of his strength for the good of Hashem, His Torah and His Nation.

It is possible to see one thing clearly in his book “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata”: he is the faithful student of Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.  He learned from him since his youth in Yeshivat Kol Torah, and he established the rulings in his book based on his words.  In fact, the foundation of a Torah scholar (Talmid Chacham) is being the literal meaning of that title: the student of a Sage, a faithful student, a devoted student, a student who sits in the dust of his Rabbi’s feet.

His students obviously know him well, students of Yeshivat Kol Torah and also the students of the Yeshivot he established: Pnei Shmuel Le-Tze’erim, Chochmat Shlomo, Netivot Chochmah, and he was also known in the Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital, where he was the Posek.

But, in truth, this is improper from our perspective.  Before recognizing a Torah scholar’s wisdom, one needs to recognize his fear of Heaven.  If there is no fear, there is no wisdom.

We have now merited the third edition of the book “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata”, 45 years after the first edition in which the author relates his life story under the title: “It is good to show gratitude to Hashem”.  Obviously, it is without a trance of self-promotion, rather in order to relate the incredible kindnesses of Hashem for his family and for himself, and for the great miracles Hashem performed for him.

Ha-Rav, the son of Ha-Rav Aharon Neuwirth, grew up on Berlin, Germany, when Hitler – may his name be blotted out – rose to power.  He and his brother were sent on a “Kindertransport”, children’s transfer, to good-hearted Jewish families in Belgium.  Much later, his parents also left Germany, on account of a special permit of the Queen of Holland for 42 Rabbis.  The children were then reunited with their parents in Holland.  But Holland itself was conquered by the Nazis – may their names be blotted out, and they were also unable to obtain food since there did not have food-ration cards.  The underground supplied them with forged food-ration cards and this is how they survived for years.  Their little money ran out.  The Jews of the underground then requested from the leaders of the underground to appoint a Rabbi for them, just like – Lehavdil – the non-Jews have a priest.  Their request was answered, and his father, Ha-Rav Aharon, was appointed the Rabbi of the underground, and this brought with it a salary – which in and of itself was a great wonder.

But there is no end to the miracles which occurred for them.  We will only mention a few.  The Nazis once burst into their apartment searching for Jews and discovered the Aron Kodesh and they inquired about it.  Ha-Rav Aharon, who was filled with Emunah and feared nothing, opened the Aron Kodesh and showed them the Sefer Torah.  “What is written in it”, they asked.  He replied in German: “It says: Do not murder.”  “What else,” they asked.  He said: “Love your fellow as yourself.”  [And this next sentence does not appear in the book, but I heard it]: He added: “I am obligated to cling to Torah.  You do what you are obligated to do, and I will do what I am obligated to do”.  A great miracle occurred and the Germans accepted his words and did not touch him.  They wished him good night and left.

Later on, all the Jews were arrested and brought to a huge prison hall.  When Rosh Hashanah arrived, Ha-Rav Aharon pulled out a Shofar, which was hidden under his jacket.  They covered themselves with jackets, and he blew the Shofar three times, and miraculously, they were not discovered.  In the end, they were released for a reason unclear to this day.

Ha-Rav Aharon sent his daughter to work as a house-keeper for a non-Jewish Dutch family, since she did not have a Jewish-looking face, and he hoped to save her in this way.  But they required her to work harder on Shabbat than any other day in preparation for Sunday, which is a holiday for the Christians.  After a few Shabbatot, Ha-Rav Aharon decided to bring her back, even though she was safe there and well fed.  But on account of the Shabbat desecration, it was impossible to continue.  She returned home on a Friday, and on Sunday they heard that that family had been killed on Shabbat by an aerial bomb.  Indeed “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata” – observing Shabbat according to the Halachah – saved them.

Baruch Hashem, the war ended. Our Rav, Ha-Rav Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth ztz”l, went to the port in Marce, France in order to travel to Eretz Yisrael, but they told him to board on the ship on Shabbat.  This greatly bothered him: “During all of the difficult years of the war, I succeeded in observing Shabbat and how is it possible that now with the liberation, I will desecrate it.”  But his situation was desperate and it appeared to be life-threatening to remain in a strange place, with no money, no food and no place to go.  He was forced to board the ship but he regretted it for many years, especially since it became clear much later that it was a deception of Shabbat-Desecrators who wanted the religious to violate Shabbat.  He then took it upon himself that if Hashem merits him, he would do something for Shabbat, and later the idea came to write the book “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata”.

When he arrived in Israel, he was captured by the British, released and then people advised him to work for his substance and to help his parents come to Israel.  But his deepest aspiration was to completely devote himself to Torah learning.  He asked his father what to do, and he responded in a letter: The One who has helped up to now will continue to help!  We went through five years of the Holocaust in for our son to learn Torah!  You will learn only Torah. And our Rav wrote: “After years of physical salvation during the war, I was saved again, but this time it was spiritual salvation.”

May we merit learning the book “Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata” in breadth and in depth, and may we merit following in the path of Ha-Rav Ha-Gaon ztz”l, his modest, his humility and his great devotion to Hashem.

May his soul be bound up with the bonds of the living with all of the Tzadikim.

Rav Aviner’s Eulogy for Rav Neuwirth – Hebrew

 הגאון “שמירת שבת כהלכתה”

 בג’ תמוז עלה למרומים בגיל 86 הגאון הגדול הרב יהושע ישעיה נויבירט זצ”ל, אחרי שנים רבות של לימוד תורה והוראת תורה. הספר ‘שמירת שבת כהלכתה’ אינו זקוק לפרסום. הוא נמצא כמעט בכל בית ירא שמים בישראל ומשמש הן תלמידי חכמים והן פשוטי עם.

אבל גאונותו עצמה כמעט אינה מוכרת. לא יודעים שהוא כתב עוד ספרים: קיצור דיני שמיטת קרקעות, אהל שרה – על טהרת המשפחה, חינוך בנים למצוות, מדריך הלכתי לאחיות בבתי חולים, וכן עשרות מאמרים ומאות פסקים המצוטטים בספרים שונים.

וכך היו תכונותיו כשל תלמיד חכם מובהק – צנוע, לא מתבלט, לא מצטלם, ולא מתוקשר. אינו מדבר על עצמו אלא מוסר כל כוחו לטובת ה’, תורתו ועמו.

רק דבר אחד אפשר לראות בבירור מתוך ספרו ‘שמירת שבת כהלכתה’, שהוא תלמיד נאמן של הגאון הרב שלמה זלמן אוירבאך, שאצלו למד בישיבת קול תורה החל מצעירותו, ועל פיו קבע את פסקיו בספרו. אכן, יסודו של תלמיד חכם הוא להיות תלמיד של חכם, תלמיד נאמן, תלמיד מסור, תלמיד מאמין, תלמיד שמתאבק בעפר רגליו של רבו.

כמובן, תלמידיו מכירים אותו היטב, תלמידי ישיבת קול תורה וכן תלמידי הישיבות שהוא הקים: פני שמואל לצעירים, חכמת שלמה, נתיבות חכמה, גם בבית חולים שערי צדק הוא מוכר בהיותו הפוסק.

אבל באמת, אין זה הוגן מצדנו. לפני שמכירים את חכמתו של תלמיד חכם צריך להכיר את יראת שמים שלו. אם אין יראה אין חכמה.

ועתה זכינו למהדורה השלישית של ספר ‘שמירת שבת כהלכתה’, 45 שנה אחרי המהדורה הראשונה שבה המחבר משרטט את קורות חייו תחת הכותרת: טוב להודות לה’. כמובן, בלי פירור של הבלטה עצמית, אלא כדי לספר חסדי ה’ העצומים על משפחתו ועליו והנסים הגדולים שה’ עשה לו.

הרב, בנו של הרב אהרון נויבירט, גדל בברלין אשר בגרמניה, וכאשר עלה היטלר ימ”ש לשלטון נשלחו הוא ואחיו ב’קינדר טרנספורט’, משלוח ילדים, למשפחות יהודים טובי לב לבלגיה. מאוחר יותר גם הוריו יצאו מגרמניה בעקבות היתר מיוחד של מלכת הולנד עבור 42 רבנים. אז הצטרפו הילדים אל הוריהם בהולנד. אלא שהולנד עצמה נכבשה על ידי הנאצים ימ”ש וגם לא היתה אפשרות להשיג מזון כיוון שלא היו להם כרטיסי מזון. אלא שהמחתרת סיפקה להם כרטיסי מזון מזויפים וכך שרדו שנים. אולם גם מעט כספם תם. אז ביקשו יהודי המחתרת ממנהיגי המחתרת שימנו להם רב, כמו להבדיל שיש לגויים כומר. בקשתם נענתה, ואביו, הרב אהרון, התמנה רב המחתרת, וזו דאגה להביא לו משכורת – דבר שמצד עצמו הוא פלאי מאוד.

אך אין סוף לנסים שעברו עליהם. ורק נביא מעטים. פעם פרצו הנאצים לדירה לחיפוש אחר יהודים וגילו את ארון הקודש ושאלו מה זה. הרב אהרן היה חדור אמונה, לא פחד ממאומה, פתח את ארון הקודש והראה להם את ספר התורה. “מה כתוב שם?”, שאלו. הוא השיב בגרמנית – “כתוב לא תרצח”. “מה עוד?” שאלו, השיב – “ואהבת לרעך כמוך”. (המשפט הבא לא מופיע בספר אך אני שמעתיו): הוא הוסיף “עלי מוטל להידבק בתורה, אתם עשו את המוטל עליכם ואני אעשה את המוטל עלי”. למרבה הנס הדברים נתקבלו על דעתם של הגרמנים שלא נגעו באיש, אמרו לילה טוב ונסתלקו.

מאוחר יותר נעצרו היהודים כולם והובלו לאולם מעצר ענק, כאשר הגיע ראש השנה שלף הרב אהרן שופר שהחביא תחת מעילו. הם התכסו במעילים, והוא תקע שם שלוש תקיעות, ובנס לא נתגלו. לבסוף שוחררו מסיבה לא ברורה עד היום.

הרב אהרן שלח את בתו לעבוד כעוזרת בית אצל משפחה הולנדית גויה כי לא היה לה מראה פנים יהודי, וכך חשב למלט אותה, אלא שהם הכריחו אותה לעבוד קשה ביום השבת יותר מכל הימים להכנת יום ראשון, שהוא יום חג של הנוצרים. אחרי כמה שבתות החליט הרב אהרון להחזירה, על אף ששם היתה בטוחה וניזונה כראוי. אך מפני חילולי השבת לא היה אפשר להמשיך כך. היא שבה הביתה ביום שישי, וביום ראשון שמעו שבית אותה משפחה נפגע בשבת בפצצה אווירית וכל יושבי הבית נהרגו. אכן שמירת שבת כהלכתה הצילה אותם.

ברוך ה’ נסתיימה המלחמה. הרב שלנו הגיע לנמל מרסיי בצרפת כדי להפליג לארץ ישראל, אבל הורו להם לעלות בשבת. הדבר ציער אותו מאוד: הרי כל שנות המלחמה הקשה הצלחתי לשמור שבת ואיך יתכן שעכשיו עם בוא החירות עלי לחללה, אבל מצבי היה עגום ונראה בעיני כסכנת נפשות להישאר במקום זר, בלי כסף, בלי אוכל, בלי רכוז. אין לאן ללכת. הוא נאלץ לעלות אפוא על האנייה אבל אירוע זה חרט בו רישומו שנים רבות, ומיוחד שלאחר זמן רב התברר שזה היה מעשה תרמית של מחללי השבת שרצו שהדתיים יחללו את השבת. אז הוא קיבל על עצמו שהקב”ה יזכה אותו והוא יעשה משהו עבור השבת, וכך עלה מאוחר יותר הרעיון לכתוב את הספר שמירת שבת כהלכתה.

כשהגיע לארץ נתפס על ידי האנגלים, שוחרר, ואנשים יעצו לו ללכת לעבוד כדי לדאוג לקיומו ולעזור להוריו לכשיגיעו. אך שאיפתו העמוקה היתה להתמסר כולו ללימוד תורה. הוא שאל על כך את אביו, שהשיב לו במכתב: מי שעזר עד היום יעזור הלאה! עברנו חמש שנות שואה כדי שבני ילמדו תורה! אתה תלמד רק תורה. וכך כותב רבנו: “אחרי הצלה גשמית במשך שנות המלחמה ניצלתי שוב, והפעם הצלה רוחנית”.


נזכה ללמוד לרוחב ולעומק את ספר ‘שמירת שבת כהלכתה’ ונזכה ללכת בדרכו של הרב הגאון זצ”ל, צניעותו, ענוותנותו ומסירותו הגדולה לה’ יתברך. תהא נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים עם כל הצדיקים.


Statement from the Orthodox Union and RCA on Reporting Child Abuse

Jun 6, 2013 — The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America reaffirm that any individual with firsthand knowledge or reasonable basis to suspect child abuse or endangerment, or the sale of illegal drugs, has a religious obligation to promptly share that information with secular law enforcement. Further, those deemed “mandated reporters” under secular law must obey their state’s reporting requirements.

Lives can be ruined or ended by unreported child abuse or endangerment, or drug sales, as we are too often tragically reminded. The Torah’s statement in Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” obligates every member of the community to do all in one’s power to prevent harm to others.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, President of the RCA, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, received the following letter from Rabbi Israel Belsky, confirming his position reporting to civil authorities in matters of child abuse.

belsky letter @ the Torah Home Education Conference

Here’s my pre-conference report from Baltimore:

I just spent a wonderful Shabbat in Baltimore at Congregation Shomrei Emunah and had an opportunity to meet many fine people over the course of Shabbat.  Our Shabbat lunch conversation glided into a discussion of the impact of the new technologies on Jewish education…a perfect lead in to Sunday’s Torah Home Education Conference.  Doors open at the JCC at 8:15 for conference check-in and and the day concludes at 6:30 pm.  I will be there all day as both a delegate and representing and our homeschooling offerings. Anyone wishing to get a hold of me in the course of the day to discuss homeschooling can call 206 948 8244; if I don’t answer, please leave me a voicemail message and I will be in contact with you no later than 6:45 pm local time.

All delegates to the conference will receive a complementary folder/information packet, including a registration form.  Our new Video will be on display as well as samples from select classes.