Navigate to Community section

A Torah’s Journey From New York to Madrid

As an American congregation closes, a new Reform congregation in Spain gains new life

Margarita Gokun Silver
August 13, 2018
Photo courtesy: Grafimia
Yael Cobano (right) with Ilana H. Bule, a member of the Reform Jewish Congregation of Madrid.Photo courtesy: Grafimia
Photo courtesy: Grafimia
Yael Cobano (right) with Ilana H. Bule, a member of the Reform Jewish Congregation of Madrid.Photo courtesy: Grafimia

For Yael Cobano, president of the Comunidad Judía Reformista de Madrid, or Reform Jewish Community of Madrid, the FedEx delivery she received on June 12 wasn’t just any package. Almost Cobano’s height, it contained a sefer Torah, a scroll that was to be CJRM’s Torah. “I cannot stop crying,” Cobano told me in an emotional WhatsApp voice message. “The text that contains our stories [and] our values traveled so far—especially for us.”

Getting their own Torah wasn’t an easy task for this nascent congregation of progressive Jews. When Cobano started CJRM in 2014—together with Ruth Timon, Keren Herrero, and Leidy Andrade—the congregation didn’t have much. They rented a space from a wine shop and borrowed the text for their siddurs from Bet Shalom, a more established Reform congregation in Barcelona. When they came together to celebrate Shabbat—then only once a month—they didn’t know if they’d have enough people to cover the cost of the room.

Through word of mouth, CJRM grew. Some joined from other congregations because they were interested in progressive Judaism. Others were non-Jews who came to explore their Jewish roots; many Spaniards who don’t identify as Jewish count conversos, Jews who converted to Catholicism under the pressure of the Spanish Inquisition, among their ancestors. And yet others came because they were in mixed marriages with non-Jewish partners and felt more welcome in a Reform congregation. CJRM offered the kind of community life they were looking for and couldn’t find elsewhere in Madrid.

Cobano said CJRM’s goal was to create “a cozy, welcoming model, a model where people care for one another—a community that offers various possibilities and cultural activities and where Jews who don’t know a lot about Judaism don’t feel excluded and can learn.”

For a country that expelled its Jews in 1492 and didn’t have any visible Jewish presence until sometime in the last century, today Spain boasts an active Jewish life. With a community of about 50,000 Jews, there are Orthodox congregations, Masorti (Conservative) synagogues, and Chabad. The Reform movement has been gathering strength in the past decade: There are now congregations in Valencia, Galicia, Rota (Cadíz), and Sevilla. CJRM is the second largest in the country after Barcelona’s Bet Shalom.

Esther Bendahan—director of cultural programs at Centro Sefarad-Israel, a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Community of Madrid, and an active member of the Orthodox community—said that the development of a Reform congregation in the Spanish capital is “a positive.” She told me via email: “It’s important that it’s known in Madrid there is plurality in Judaism, and its resistance and resilience resides there.”

Two years after their first Shabbat together in 2014, CJRM had become established enough to join the European Union for Progressive Judaism and through them, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Today the congregation’s membership counts almost 30 families. Although still renting space, congregants now celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays in a nicer venue—at one of Madrid’s cultural centers. At the 2016 EUPJ biannual in London, CJRM became the first recipient of the group’s Torah-lending program for new member communities: For two years they were given a small-size sefer Torah loaned by the West London Synagogue.

But CJRM knew it was a loan and the scroll would have to be returned. So Cobano, along with other members of the community—and with the active help of Bet Shalom—began to work on finding a Torah for the Madrid congregation. As a small community with limited resources they couldn’t afford one, so they looked to EUPJ, WUPJ, and members of visiting congregations for assistance. The word spread and, in April 2018, Cobano learned from WUPJ that there might be a Torah for them.

“This [Torah donation] is part of the World Union Shomrei Torah Project,” Naomi Smook, WUPJ’s director of advancement, told me. “One of our pillars is to build progressive communities around the world and giving Torah scrolls to developing communities is part of that.” The Shomrei Torah Project has been in existence for about 30 years and through it WUPJ has already distributed more than 100 scrolls. The Torah that arrived in Madrid was donated by the Congregation M’vakshe Derekh of Scarsdale, New York, which was closing its doors.

M’vakshe Derekh, a Reconstructionist synagogue, opened around 35 years ago. It didn’t have a religious school; it served mostly older members, and it had a strong focus on studying, discussion, and traditional ritual practice. Now that the membership has aged out and decreased in numbers, it could no longer afford to stay open. The congregation decided to close and to donate its three Torahs to the WUPJ.

“We decided that donation would be a very fine way of giving life to new Jewish communities from a Jewish community that has gone through its full life cycle,” said Rabbi Ned Soltz, the last rabbi of M’vakshe Derekh. The scrolls came to M’vakshe Derekh courtesy of its first rabbi, Rabbi Ludwig Nadelmann, and are believed to be between 150 and 200 years old. “[For the members] the loss of their community, the community they loved, is very much tempered by the fact that they know that a little bit of them lives in the new communities that the Torah scrolls will be read in,” Soltz said. “As Torah is read in Madrid from our scrolls, it’s l’dor vador, from generation to generation.”

But before one of the M’vakshe Derekh scrolls could travel to its new home in Madrid, it had to be repaired. The funding for this repair came courtesy of the Spivak family from Southern California. Several months before the M’vakshe Derekh Torah became available, Gaby Spivak read an article in a Union of Reform Judaism newsletter about CJRM. The article mentioned the congregation was in search of a scroll and Spivak wanted to help. “I was a student at Complutense [a university in Madrid] 30-some years ago and I wish I could have had a congregation [like this] back then,” said Spivak. “So I just started thinking, they need a Torah, how can we get one?”

She spoke to other members of her family and everyone decided to pitch in: her husband, Mike, and her son Max, her sister-in-law Sharon Spivak with her daughter Madeline Ottilie, and Betty Spivak, Gaby’s mother-in-law. “It became a whole family thing,” said Spivak. They donated the funds to WUPJ and almost within the same week M’vakshe Derekh contacted WUPJ with their scroll donation. “It was serendipitous,” said Smook.

For Cobano the news that her congregation would soon be getting a Torah came a few weeks before they had to return the loaned scroll. “I knew that at some point [our] Torah would arrive,” Cobano said. “[We] trusted in the global Jewish family.”

For Jewish institutions supporting Jewish plurality around the world, strong Reform congregations in Spain are important. “We are grateful for the privilege of nurturing a synagogue community of committed Jews and bringing a Torah scroll to a country that gave so much to the development of Judaism and we look forward to a Jewish future that may someday rival the Jewish past,” Rabbi Daniel Freelander, president of WUPJ, told me via email.

Gaby, Mike, and Max Spivak made plans to travel to Madrid at the time of the Torah’s arrival to take part in the Hachnasat Torah. “It was an absolutely beautiful ceremony,” said Gaby. “Very intimate, very joyous. Everybody was very emotional.” Some of the members told her they had never seen a full-size Torah and many drove for more than an hour to attend the ceremony. “For being so new [the community] is great. They’re there for each other [and] everyone is so nice and so welcoming. It’s a warm community and you can feel the warmth,” she said.

The celebration also brought together the diverse membership of the city’s Jewish community: Members of both the Orthodox and the Masorti congregations were there along with representatives from the Jewish day school and the Maccabi World Union. “This Torah came not only as a blessing for [our] community, but also as [something that] united many Jewish institutions of Madrid,” said Cobano. From other faiths, CJRM’s colleagues on interreligious dialogue also attended, as did Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance, with whom CJRM works closely in combating anti-Semitism.

For members of CJRM, the Torah’s arrival marks an important milestone. They see it as yet another step in their congregation’s growth and development. “The words of the Torah is what connects us as community,” Glen Glasman, one of the newer members, told me. “The community is now more complete that it has a Torah that it can call its own.”

With the new Torah as its center, CJRM now looks forward to its next milestones: a Sunday school for the kids and more learning initiatives for adults. Members are working on a book of stories and recipes that will introduce the Sephardic tradition of a Rosh Hashanah Seder to the Ashkenazi and other Jews. And they are hoping that soon they’ll be able to celebrate Shabbat and observe the Jewish holidays in their own space. “We’ve felt so backed up by the global Jewish family,” said Cobano. “Even though they didn’t know us, they’ve responded. It’s one Jew for another Jew.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist, essayist, and novelist.