Belmonte: Community Needs Trained Leaders

My parents came to Canada from Zabludow a small poor Shtetl (a Jewish town) in Poland famous for its beautiful 16th C wooden synagogue It was burnt down by the Germans and their willing helpers during World War 2 My parents experienced antiSemitism hunger and a pogrom in which my mother’s younger sister was killed My father’s father after whom I am named was murdered by peasants on Easter My father’s reaction was to become a Communist When he came to Canada he joined the party My mother the daughter of a Chassidic family was a Zionist In Montreal she joined the Zionist Pioneer Women

There were no religious observations in our home Yet my mother lit Shabbat and Holiday candles and spent Yom Kippur in our neighborhood synagogue My father sent my older sister and me to an afternoon Yiddish communist school The two younger siblings attended a Cheder (a one room school in a private home) At age eleven I rebelled against the extreme radical secularism of my father I enrolled in the Zionist YL Peretz afternoon school This was the beginning of a life long love affair with the Jewish People and the Land of Israel

You may wonder why an Ashkenazi Jew has become so interested and cares so deeply about the small Sephardi Community in Belmonte Portugal In my early teens I joined Habonim (the builders)a Zionist Youth Movement and later became a student at the Canadian Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary in Montreal After graduating my friend and I volunteered to work with Jewish Youth from North Africa in a transit camp for immigrants (Olim) waiting for passage to Israel I taught Hebrew Israeli songs and dances and about life in Israel to youth from Morocco Tunisia Algeria and from Egypt While working with them I realized that we were participating in an exciting Jewish historic moment; The Ingathering of the Exiles This awareness became more meaningful during the elevenday voyage from Marseille to Haifa on the SS Chana Senesh On this crowded small ship with immigrants from North Africa France Bulgaria England Holland and North America I thought of the Prophet Y’chezkiel’s prophecy: “And I shall gather you from the Nations andbring you to the Land of Israel”

On the morning when land was sighted we crowded onto the deck There was hugging and tears of joy This for me was a defining moment which propelled me into activism on behalf of the Marranos who desire to return to the world Jewish community

I am not researching nor studying them Because of my Life’s experiences I understand them and feel connected to their situation as part of my soul In mid March of this year I made my 7th trip to be with my friends the ’Marranos’ in Portugal The Lisbon Marranos are youthful professionals vibrant and very proud and happy that they were accepted into the Masorti (Conservative) family Their Ohel Yaakov Synagogue is the first in the history of the Jews of Portugal to be part of the Masorti Movement (associated with the American Conservative Movement)

A year ago Dr Harold Michael Smith former Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the New York Medical College and a member or the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies made a generous contribution to enable the Ohel Yaakov Synagogue to relocate to a more pleasant safer premise This year Dr Michael Smith donated $10000 to purchase books for the Lana Liner Library at the synagogue The first books for the library were purchased with funds raised by the American Friends of the Marranos an organization I founded in 2006

Vanessa Paloma Concert Singer in Ladino from Los Angeles and I came to Belmonte before Pessach to teach the children about the holiday using stories songs dance and art We also hoped to work with the adults Thanks to the generosity of Donald Herman SCJS member each family received a Haggadah published in Brazil Each child received a Holiday coloring book as well as books about Moshe and the Patriarchs Sonya Loya SCJS board member was kind and caring to send Pessach and other materials for the children

To my great disappointment and sorrow I discovered that the Jewish Community in Belmonte is in a serious crisis

On my previous visits I did not get a chance to visit families This time Vanessa and I made every effort to meet with families in their homes We heard serious complaints from parents and young adults against the leadership Actually there is no leadership and no democracy How could there be? No one was ever trained to be a leader The president and vice president control everything and everyonean invitation to corruption There are three computers in the synagogue office that never have been used because no one was trained to use them and to be a volunteer office worker No one was trained to be a librarian to catalogue the books to get rid of the many unsuitable books and magazines that are collecting dust to decide on library hours for children for adults

I found a number of talented anxious to learn young men and women in their early twenties who should and could have been trained to become teachers youth leaders social workers and work in the community or for the m have never had a Jewish education and long for the day when they could leave Belmonte The women look and feel depressed The men (and women) work hard in the markets Because of lack of leadership and corruption there is constant bickering and arguments The rabbis who came in the early days to teach religion were not trained on how to work with people who lived a double life who could hardly read Portuguese who had different attitudes who needed compassion and understanding and who because of generations of intramarrying now have physical emotional and psychological problems which have never been addressed Most of the children we worked with are hyper ative and are explosive if they not get their way

The small Sephardi community in Belmonte is in serious trouble It is a community in crisis and is in danger of disappearing There is no Jewish infrastructure in Belmonte There is not even a Jewish newspaper or magazine there The youth do not attend synagogue services The three or four that do attend regularly sing from memory No one explains

If the International Jewish Agencies and the Sephardic Organizations as well as the Jewish Agency do not act the Belmonte Jews will become merely a subject of research as did other Jewish Communities such as the Chinese Jews of Kaifang We must not allow this to happen The Inquisition must not triumph

YAACOV GLADSTONE board member of SCJS is founder of American Friends of the Marranos and has visited Portugal several times in support of anusim communities 

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