It’s one of the Jewish world’s oldest still-active charities. But will the Santa Companhia de Dotar Orphas e Donzelas—a charitable fund founded in 1615 by Amsterdam’s wealthy Portuguese Jews to help marry off orphaned and needy Sephardic girls—survive the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe?
Lots of Tradition
The ritual may not be as elaborate as those pertaining to the Netherlands’s royal family, but there is definitely something regal about a ceremony that takes place every year, right after Purim, in Amsterdam’s historic Portuguese Synagogue. Board members of the Santa Companhia de Dotar Orphas e Donzelas (Holy Brotherhood of the Endowment of Orphans and Maidens)—known as Dotar, for short—don top hats and dark suits to carry three antique silver bowls into the synagogue’s main hall, where a small crowd is waiting.
After the chairman of the Dotar recites a short prayer for the founders of the charitable fund, it’s time for the main event to begin. Inside each of the covered bowls are lots inscribed with the names of young people eligible to win a gift of money to help pay for their wedding expenses. The bowls are given a shake and children from the community step forward to draw the names of the winners. Those names are duly recorded in a large communal book called the Termos (Resolutions), and members of the Dotar sign the record. Then the crowd retires to a smaller room, where refreshments are served.
This past Shushan Purim marked the 400th anniversary of the Dotar, whose work has been interrupted only once during its long history: the years 1943-1947, when members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community either fled, went into hiding, or were deported to the death camps during World War II.
“We have Termos books going back to 1615,” says Jaap Sondervan, the Dotar’s current chairman, whom I met while he was visiting Jerusalem. “The previous Termos included the war years. After the war, the survivors left two pages blank, and they started a new page. I get very emotional when I see this—the way that they turned the page and began again.”
It was a very different world that the Holocaust survivors returned to, just as the challenges facing today’s members of the Portuguese Jewish community are different from those of previous generations. But before we speak about today, we must turn back the pages to the early years of the seventeenth century, when the Spanish Inquisition was still active and Amsterdam was a beacon of tolerance for those fleeing from religious persecution.
From Converso to Chuppah
Sephardic Jews and crypto-Jews, or Conversos, from the Iberian Peninsula first arrived in Amsterdam in the late 1500s, after the city gained its independence from Spain. When Amsterdam became the world’s center of trade and finance during the seventeenth century, the Sephardic community prospered. Yet at the same time they felt a responsibility toward those Iberian Jews and Conversos who hadn’t fared so well, whether they lived in Amsterdam or had fled to other places in Europe. One outgrowth of this concern was the establishment of the Dotar.
According to historian Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld, author of “Dowries and Dotar: An Unbroken Chain of 400 Years” – an essay she wrote in honor of its 400th anniversary – the original purpose of the Dotar was two-fold: to ensure that even poor Sephardic girls could marry and to encourage these girls to marry a halachically Jewish man and remain part of the Jewish community.
It was modeled upon a similar fund that had been set up by Sephardic Jews in Venice. But Amsterdam’s Dotar was initially more ambitious in scope. Amsterdam was often the first stop in northern Europe for Conversos, and so the primary mission of the Dotar was to help the young women who had fled from the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal—some of whom had seen their parents burned at the stake, and most of whom had very little in the way of material possessions. However, many Conversos fled to southern France, England, Germany and even the New World, and eligible young women from these places could be entered in the lottery.