Can Sephardic Jews Go Home Again — 500 Years After the Inquisition?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Hats: Hats for Orthodox Jews made in a factory Southern Spain.
getty images
Hats: Hats for Orthodox Jews made in a factory Southern Spain.

Part 4: ‘Perhaps It Was Not the Right Decision’

I went from Royo’s office to the Ashkenazic synagogue, the only Jewish space in Madrid where nobody cared about the legacy of the Inquisition, to meet the country’s most recent Jewish immigrants. I wanted to see if they now regretted moving to Spain.

It’s hard to find Congregación Bet El. The congregation has a website, but lists no address or phone number. In 2005, when I was studying abroad in Madrid, I wound up ringing a buzzer one Friday at an address I found online that I thought was the synagogue. All I heard on the other end of the intercom were angry-sounding dogs.

This time, I found the synagogue easily. It was an unmarked storefront with frosted windows in a residential neighborhood of Madrid. In a circle of chairs in the center of the room, Mario Stofenmacher was meeting with a family about bar mitzvah classes. Stofenmacher isn’t quite a rabbi, but he’s the closest his congregation has. He had been a student at the Masorti rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires, but then left the country in 1990 for work in Spain. Now he leads the only Masorti synagogue in Madrid and the third-largest synagogue in Spain.

The sanctuary sticks, with impressive fealty, to the aesthetic clichés of the North American Conservative synagogue — a piece of art depicting the Tree of Life, another depicting a candelabra, an Israeli flag hung next to the Spanish flag, a Yamaha keyboard. The ceiling, however, is low; the room is lit with flat fluorescent lights. Stofenmacher’s office is a tiny glass-walled cubicle toward the back.

The Jews at Bet El came to Spain in two waves: first, in 1990, fleeing economic crisis in Argentina, then 10 years later fleeing an even larger economic crisis in Argentina and political unrest in Venezuela.

Stofenmacher came with the first wave. “I was 30 years old,” Stofenmacher said. “We were just starting again.”

The Argentines arrived with no illusions about Spain. The children of refugees from Eastern Europe who had the relative bad luck to settle in a South American country where not much went right after 1900, they had no grandparents obsessed with any prehistoric Spanish idyll. Seeking economic stability in Spain, they couldn’t have picked a worse refuge.

They came because of the shared language, and because of the special deal the Spaniards offered to all Latin Americans starting in the 1980s: In return for four centuries of conquest, enslavement and general imperialist oppression, you could get a Spanish passport after just two years of residency instead of the normal 10.

“It’s an easygoing country, the services were pretty good,” Stofenmacher said, sitting in his office while the sanctuary started to fill with congregants and their kids. His synagogue has 150 member families today. After they got their Spanish passports, the Latin American Jews stayed, and they transformed Spain’s Jewish community. Enrollment at the partially state-funded Jewish school in Madrid nearly doubled. Stofenmacher claims that the Ashkenazi Latin Americans who have arrived since 1990 make up something like half the Jewish population in Spain.


‘This community has a complicated future….The question is how it’s going to survive with no youth.’


One thing that the Latin Americans haven’t changed is the Federación. Royo’s group, though still the official Jewish leadership in the eyes of the state, remains the fiefdom of the better-established Moroccans. Only the Orthodox communities, which are Moroccan-dominated, have a vote on the Federación’s board. Bet El is an associate member of the Federación with no say in its governance.

“They usually [say] they represent all of the Jews,” Stofenmacher said of the Federación. “It’s not true.”

He complained that Moroccan-dominated Orthodox communities outside of Madrid that are far smaller than his congregation receive more in government funding through the Federación. Meanwhile, Madrid’s Orthodox chief rabbi, a black-hat Sephardi, won’t allow Masorti converts to be buried in Madrid’s Jewish cemetery, and won’t count them in a minyan.

All of this might be a bigger problem if the community itself were not disintegrating in front of Stofenmacher’s eyes.

The Latin Americans who came to Spain in 2000 and 2004 arrived in poverty. Most were families with young children, businessmen who had lost everything back in Argentina. “They were really starting again,” Stofenmacher said. “That was why, for them, it was more difficult.” When the economic crisis came to Spain, they had barely had a chance to get established. The congregation itself had put away some money during its early years and has continued to operate, but its members are struggling.

“Now, after 20 years, you see yourself and you say, ‘Hey guy, perhaps it was not the right decision,’” Stofenmacher said. “But they felt that they made part of their lives here, so it’s not so easy to break those roots and to go back.”

Their children, however, are more mobile. As soon as they can, young Jews from Stofenmacher’s community are leaving Spain. Some go to high school in Israel, then stay for college. Stofenmacher’s own son is going to high school in Chicago. He doesn’t think he’ll ever move back.

“This community has a complicated future,” Stofenmacher said. “The question is how this community is going to survive with no youth.”


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