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My Machberes

Madrid's vice mayor with Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger and Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer.

Jews And Spain

Jewish history in Spain dates back more than 2,000 years. Jewish scholarship began to flourish there beginning in the 8th century. Spanish rulers, whether Christian or Muslim, valued their Jewish subjects and, with fluctuations, generally granted them wide tolerance. Torah scholarship was valued and codification of Jewish law began there. Sadly, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 brought an end to Jewish communal life in Spain.

Today, Jewish communities, which were bolstered in the 1970s by a considerable influx of Argentinian Jews, mainly Ashkenazim, are multiplying in Spain.

The Jewish Cemetery of Toledo

Efforts to contain defilement at the Jewish cemetery in Toledo have achieved notable success. Dating back more than 700 years, the Jewish cemetery there, like cemeteries in other Spanish cities, are snapshots of the Golden Era of Jewry prior to the expulsion of 1492 and the subsequent inquisitions. Several hundred such cemeteries are known to exist, none of which has had a new interment since those times.

When the municipality of Toledo decided to expand the facility of a school constructed in the 1980s, human bones were unearthed during construction. Upon further examination and investigation, the ground was determined to be that of a Jewish cemetery. Experts further ascertained that several leading Torah scholars were interred in that cemetery.

A number of international campaigns focused on convincing the local Spanish municipality, as well as the federal Spanish government, of the unique sanctified character of Jewish cemeteries. Violating a Jewish cemetery is sacrilege. Unless a grave is in physical danger, re-interment is never a consideration.

Some of the campaigns overlapped and actually hampered communications with Spanish governmental officials. What should have been campaigns of education and negotiation sometimes lapsed into condemnations and confrontations. Denouncing potentially cooperative officials, whether at the local or federal level, is counter-productive. Receptive Spanish officials suddenly found themselves being publicly vilified.

The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) is the international organization led by the widely respected London rosh yeshiva Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger. Beginning in the summer of 2008, when the defiled cemetery was determined to be Jewish, CPJCE began its outreach to Spanish governmental representatives in Spain, England, Israel, and the United States.

In December of that year, the Jewish federation of Spain, consisting of 13 traditional and Orthodox congregations and operating three Jewish day schools, contacted CPJCE by letter, asking for help in the matter of the Jewish cemetery in Toledo. Using its decades-long diplomatic connections, PJCE established a dialogue with parties both in the local government as well as on the federal level.

L-R: Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Teitelbaum, Hon. Fernando Villalonga, and Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum.

Bones unearthed from graves in the cemetery were placed into sealed containers for later disposition. A noted historian and cemetery expert from Israel came to Toledo to study the situation. The historian is also a greatly respected architect. The building efforts were put on hold until a mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached by all parties.

The Jewish cemetery, because it had not been used for more than 600 years, was not on any register of sensitive sites. Further, some in the local municipality insisted that the school’s immediate need for more space superseded what many considered an unimportant, old, out-of-service, undocumented burial ground. The historian-architect who determined that it was, indeed, an important old Jewish community cemetery, submitted a redesign of the school expansion that would not be desecrating the cemetery.

The architectural redesign was acceptable; however it had an additional cost of $1.3 million, which the local underfunded municipality could not possibly provide. After protracted negotiations, the Spanish federal government announced it was willing to underwrite half of the additional cost.

Meetings In New York

A New York Congressman arranged for a meeting between representatives of UJCare of Williamsburg, the Hon. Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer, member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and Spain’s then-Ambassador to the United States to meet in May 2009 with Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe, at his study in Kiryas Yoel.

The then-Spanish Ambassador, Fernando Villalonga, advised the Satmar Rebbe that the Spanish government was developing an agreement with municipalities on a protocol to follow should similar issues arise in the future. Villalonga also told the Rebbe that the Spanish federal government was in the process of returning all remains from the Toledo cemetery for reburial before the end of June 2009.

Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger was in Brooklyn at that time and met at Beis Medrash Vayoel Moshe in Williamsburg with a number of rabbis involved in the negotiation process, and favorably reviewed a report by Rabbi Moshe Hershaft, a London member of CPJCE, stating that he had personally visited the Toledo cemetery and inspected and approved the designated places in the cemetery where reburial of the exhumed bones would be re-interred; visited the safeguarded bones that were being kept in sealed containers in an honored and secure storeroom under guard; and received a certificate of authority to remove and re-inter the bones.

Rabbi Hershaft was accompanied by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Dahan, chief rabbi of Madrid, who certified the report. The report was approved by the rabbinical board of CPJCE before its dissemination.

Rabbi Schlesinger was overjoyed to announce that within days a date would be set whereupon all arrangements would be finalized and the remains of our ancestors restored to their rightful place of eternal rest. In addition, work was in progress to identify every Jewish cemetery in Spain and each would be registered with the Spanish government as well as with European agencies. Every Jewish cemetery identified in Spain would also be included in the United Nations list of protected heritage sites.

2011: Lucena, Spain

The old Jewish cemetery in Lucena, Spain, dating back more than a thousand years, was harmed. While laying the foundation and paving a roadway, a construction crew inadvertently excavated a portion of the cemetery. Bones were found and an alert was issued. Government officials hurriedly marked the individual graves, collected the bones from each, and had them stored in a secure warehouse. Remains of more than 150 persons were thus removed.

The CPJCE was alerted. Rabbi Abraham Ginsburg, CPJCE executive director, frantically dispatched officers to arrange proper handling. As with bureaucracies around the world, red tape threatened an immediate resolution of the problem.

The Hon. Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer was born in Argentina and continues to maintain close relationships with former neighbors and schoolmates. On a visit to his old home he had met and befriended the Hon. Fernando Villalonga, then serving as Spanish Consul General in Argentina.

When the problem in Lucena arose, Fleischer reached out to his friend Villalonga, who was now serving as Spanish Consul General in New York. The Consul General assured Yitzchok he would quickly resolve the problem. Using his diplomatic skills and contacts, the Consul General did indeed cut through the red tape and almost immediately arranged for all the remains to be re-interred in the cemetery. CPJCE quickly arranged for its representatives to rebury the remains.

2012: Giving Honor to a Dedicated Friend

In the interim, Fernando Villalonga was appointed vice mayor of Madrid and minister of Cultural Affairs for Spain. In recognition of the significant help Villalonga had provided, those involved in the Lucena event joined together to honor the new vice mayor.

Partial view of the gathering.

Gershon Schlesinger, chairman of UJCare, arranged for a reception at the Boro Park home of civic leader Shmuel Yonah Schlesinger, where on Monday evening, January 9, leaders of the observant community gathered to warmly embrace and praise Villalonga and wish him continued success in his important new positions.

Izzy Goldberg, Esq., president of COJO of Flatbush, chaired the event which was graced with the presence of Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Teitelbaum, Rav of the Satmar Kehilla on 15th Avenue and brother of the Satmar Rebbe, whose favor and encouragement served as a guiding light.

New York City Council Members Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. and David Greenfield presented a Certificate of Resolution enacted by the City Council in honor of the event. Rabbi Shmuel Schlesinger, son of the London rosh yeshiva, read a letter of good wishes from his father. NYPD Chaplain Yitzchok M. Heschel read a letter of congratulations from Rabbi Ginsburg of CPJCE, and Yitzchok Fleischer presented a plaque on behalf of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

This writer, in his capacity as director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, noted that Jewry’s sojourn in Spain is considered a Golden Age when Talmudic scholars there codified Jewish Law by which all observant Jews are guided to this very day. Rabbi Meir Zwiebel of the Admas Kodesh organization, who personally responded to the call from Lucena and was privileged to participate in the re-burials, articulated his heartfelt thanks for the Consul’s help.

Group Photo

Fernando Villalonga was emotionally moved by the sincere appreciation lavished upon him. He indicated he was privileged to learn about the Jewish community. He expressed great pride in the newly established Rambam Research Institute in Madrid and the reawakening Jewish communities in Spain. He graciously invited everyone personally to visit Spain, where Jewish history and the Jewish community are again being brought to life.

The evening was a truly meaningful event, with participants expressing true respect and admiration for the Consul General’s invaluable assistance and wishing him continued success in his developing career and in all other professional and private endeavors.

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