Celebrating Three Centuries Of Prosperity and Tolerance

By Samuel Loewenberg

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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GIBRALTAR — The Jewish community of Gibraltar ended their Saturday services the way they do all important celebrations: with a blessing for Prince Charles and the rest of the royals, and by singing a rousing rendition of “God Save the Queen” in Hebrew.

This Saturday, though, they were celebrating something particularly important: the anniversary of the capture of the Rock by an Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1704, which began 300 years of prosperity and tolerance for Jews on the jutting peninsula on the southern tip of Spain. The synagogue where the anniversary took place, Shaar Hashamayim synagogue, is more than 250 years old and the third-oldest synagogue in Europe that it still in use.

The Jewish presence on Gibraltar goes back much further, to the 14th century, when, according to historical documents, Gibraltarians issued a plea to the community to collect a ransom for a group of Jews who had been abducted by pirates. Later, other documents note the plights of Jews fleeing persecution in Andalusia who found sanctuary on the Rock in 1473.

“The traditional British sense of fair play and democracy has allowed the Jewish community to thrive, and that in turn has allowed Gibraltar to become what it is today,” said Isaac Hassan, a spokesman for the community.

The Rock has been a unique haven in which Jews have coexisted peacefully with Muslims and Christians throughout centuries of turmoil in Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, on Saturday, the streets of Gibraltar were a mishmash of British shoppers, Moroccans in flowing robes, Indians in colorful wedding dress, and Jews in yarmulkes, homburgs and top hats. Locals take pride in this medley of communities and traditions.

“You can always tell a Gibraltarian Jew because he carries both a strong respect for tradition and a strong respect for tolerance,” said Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth United Kingdom and Commonwealth, who spoke at the ceremony.

Today, the Jewish community in Gibraltar numbers slightly more than 600. Despite their relatively small number, the Jews on the Rock have managed to sustain some four different synagogues, three schools and even several rabbinical students.

Although the island is an outpost of the British Commonwealth, because of its history, most, if not all, of Gibraltar’s Jews are Sephardic. The rituals and customs of Moroccan Jews live on to this day. Henna parties are still held the night before marriages and many songs sung in synagogues have their origins in the northern Moroccan city of Tetouan.

Sacks spoke passionately about the uniqueness of the Gibraltarian Jewish community. While it is one of the most observant in Europe, Sacks said, it is “probably the community where Jews have been the most integrated.” He pointed out the Gibraltar City Hall, donated by a family of Aaron Cardozo, a friend of Admiral Lord Nelson, in the early 1800s, when Jews comprised more than half of Gibraltar’s population. Jews continued to live and flourish in Gibraltar, reaching a peak of about 2,000, until the Holocaust, when many were evacuated to British territories.

In the years after World War II, when intermarriage rates in Jewish communities around the world began to increase, the Gibraltarians made a conscious decision to maintain a strong Jewish identity and not intermarry, according to Sacks.

Samuel Abudarham, 59, can trace his family’s Gibraltarian lineage back some 10 generations, to a Jewish trader from Gibraltar who did business with Morocco in the mid-1700s. Abudarham, who lived for many years in England and recently has returned to the Rock to retire, says that living amid that kind of history has a particularly special meaning for him. “I remember going down the street with my father when I was a boy and hailing people to come join the minyan,” Abudarham said.

Like many in the younger generation, his nephew, Moshe, 16, is planning to leave Gibraltar to study in a university in England or in Israel. Moshe says that many young people who left to study abroad are now returning with wives, and he plans to do the same. “I hope to come back, to help the community grow,” he said.

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