January 11, 2008

Rabbi’s Visit in 1980s Helped Open Belmonte

A January 4 article reports: “Until the 1990s, the Belmonte conversos kept their history to themselves” (“After 500 Years in Hiding, Jews Bring Prosperity to Iberian Town”).

In 1985, however, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer of Portland, Ore., visited Belmonte and made numerous contacts within the Judeo community. Robert Reed, having spent much time in Belmonte gathering research data as an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Indiana, accompanied Stampfer as translator. David Augusto Canelo, a school teacher and local historian mentioned in the article, was also instrumental in helping Stampfer gain an understanding of the community. I also joined in the journey to Belmonte.

“The Last Crypto-Jews of Portugal: The Story and History of Belmonte’s Judeo Community” by David Canelo had already been published in Portuguese before its first English edition, edited by Stampfer, was published in 1985 and revised in 1990.

In 1987, Stampfer returned to Belmonte with his wife Goldie and conducted the first public and open Shabbat ceremonies Belmonte had seen in 500 years. About 60 members of Belmonte’s crypto-Judaic community gathered in city hall to celebrate the Sabbath and the community’s free, open and uninhibited entry into the 20th century. Belmonte’s mayor was even invited to publicly proclaim the historic significance of the event.

While it is certainly true that the community gathered economic and religious steam in the 1990s, thanks should be given to the dedication and work a decade earlier of Stampfer. Had he not brought the crypto-Jews of Belmonte together in public and in the spirit of freedom, it is unlikely that tourists would be flocking to Beit Eliyahu and the museum today.

It should also be mentioned that it was nearly a century ago, in 1917, that Samuel Schwartz, a Polish Jewish mining engineer, discovered Belmonte’s Judaic community. The community, in turn, discovered that there was a vast Jewish world beyond the secret confines they had grown so used to. It took another 70 years for the community to pray together with the guidance and inspiration of Stampfer.

We are pleased to learn that the conversos in Belmonte are now more open to reconciling their secret religious practices with the modern Jewish world, but we disagree with the statement that Belmonte “seems to offer more than Lisbon and Toledo, both of which are full of Jewish history but empty of actual Jews.”

In May 2005, a group of approximately 30 crypto-Jews living in Lisbon turned to Masorti Olami-World Council of Conservative Synagogues for help in returning to their heritage, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to connect with the Orthodox Jewish community. Rabbi Joe Wernik, the executive vice president of Masorti Olami at the time, and Rabbi Chaim Weiner, director of the European Masorti Beit Din, visited the group to evaluate their needs and to provide a curriculum for study and practice.

The group officially registered as a religious organization, “Communidade Judaica Masorti Beit Yisrael,” the first non-Orthodox community in Portugal. Since September 2005, Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow from New York have been visiting Beit Yisrael four times a year, teaching Torah and Jewish tradition, instructing the members in liturgy and mitzvot, and preparing members who are ready for conversion under the auspices of the European Masorti Beit Din.

Masorti Olami will continue our efforts to help Communidade Judaica Masorti Beit Yisrael become a self-sustaining Masorti community, develop strong leadership and expand its membership by reaching out to other conversos and non-Orthodox Jews in Lisbon.

Presidential Courage

The elimination of Saddam Hussein — who was responsible for the torture, repression and murder of thousands, who sought and used weapons of mass destruction, who shot Scud missiles into Israel and who paid the families of Palestinian suicide bombers — is, in the words of the Forward, a “calamity” brought on solely by an American president “hell-bent on war” (“Voting Our Hopes, Voting Our Fears,” January 4).

Let’s hope our next president has the courage and moral clarity to risk a similar “calamity” before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets his wish.

When a Brit Was Cheap

I recall that when my father was a mohel and a shochet during the 1930s in Washington, prices for a brit were quite a bit less expensive than the $700-750 prices quoted in a December 28 article (“Mohels Give Non-Jewish Babies a Slice of Tradition”).

Back then, my father charged middle-class Jewish fathers $10 and more affluent dads $25. And my father definitely did not give non-Jewish babies a slice of tradition.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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January 11, 2008

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