Who knew that a 500-year-old ceramic jug from Portugal would change the lives of 25 Jewish Young Professionals forever? On December 29th, 2019, Project 613, a Chicago-based Young Professional outreach organization, teamed up with Olami affiliates J-HYPE from Houston & Partners in Torah from Detroit, for a truly incredible “Iberian Adventure” to Portugal, Spain, & Gibraltar run by JRoots of England.
Project 613’s mission is to help Young Professional Jews to LOVE being Jewish and to know why! In addition to our focus on Torah study & Shabbos experiences, Jewish-themed trips are powerful ways to explore Jewish identity and what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Our Iberian Adventure was no exception!
Many people asked me why we chose to travel to Portugal & Spain. Unfortunately, more than 70% of non-Orthodox Jewish youth today are assimilating through no fault of their own. They are abandoning the great treasure of Judaism & being part of the Jewish people simply because they don’t know how AWESOME it is to be Jewish. The first reason we chose the Iberian Peninsula is quite simply that it is a “trending” vacation spot! Even more, these destinations provide a perfect venue to bring out two major themes: Jewish greatness & Jewish choices.
We traveled back in time to experience the Golden Age of Spain where the great Rishonim (Rabbinic Scholars) flourished. We discussed the Jewish impact on the world through our Torah learning, scholarship, innovation, business acumen & political involvement. We strolled in Cordoba where the Rambam (Maimonides) grew up before being forced to flee. We visited the incredible Jewish town of Lucena that was home to the RIF (Rav Yitzchak Alfasi) & the RI Migash who exemplify the greatness of Jewish Talmudic scholarship.
For the most part, Spain & Portugal have not owned up to their horrific treatment & exile of the Jews. One exception is Lucena. When constructing a freeway, they discovered the old Jewish cemetery that had been buried from centuries of neglect. They decided to re-route the road and make the cemetery a historical landmark! One of the most moving experiences of the trip was our group prayer at the Jewish cemetery in Lucena. Jewish greatness may be gone from Spain, but we would not let it be forgotten.
The theme of Jewish choices pulsed throughout the entire trip. A mountain village in Portugal called Castelo de Vide rocked our world. Our tour guide Carolino Tapajedo, the former mayor of the town and descendant of converso Jews, has been excavating & reconstructing the old Jewish buildings. He showed us the synagogue, the Aron Kodesh (Ark for the Torah), and the mikveh. One of the most moving moments on the trip was when one of the participants shared with the group that he had put on tefillin for the very first time in his life THAT morning. The entire group broke out into 2 circles of dancing to celebrate this major Jewish milestone! The sounds & sights of Jewish singing and dancing had returned to Portugal after 500 years of silence!
Carolino then showed us a 500-year-old jug. It wasn’t an ordinary jug. After the Jews were expelled in 1492 from Spain, estimates of 200,000-400,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal. What is not often reported is that the same number of Jews decided to stay in Spain and convert. Choices. Leave your home, your wealth, your comfort, and embark on a dangerous journey to the unknown to keep your Judaism? Or keep your life & convert? Perhaps become a believing Christian? Or perhaps pretend to be Christian and HIDE your Judaism. The Spanish & Portugese had an answer for those Jews who pretended to convert- it was called the Inquisition. Choices…
Carolino showed us the actual well in which our ancestors were dragged kicking & screaming “Shema Yisrael” before their forced baptism. There is a “U-shaped” hole in the back of the jug that allowed our ancestors to light Shabbos candles and then hid them in the jug. The hole allowed the air to come in and out allowing the candles to stay lit. True dedication!
The Shabbos candles represented the experience of our Jewish Young Professionals- their Jewish souls may have been hidden before the trip, but now they are fanned into a passionate flame as they have returned to America to continue their Jewish journey.
One truly powerful component of the trip was having mentors from Chicago: Bruce & Cheryl Leon and Yishai & Bluma Broner. To have successful business people who are so heavily involved in Jewish communal work to share their life experiences & Torah wisdom with our Young Professionals was priceless. Cheryl brought her expertise from running JWRP Women’s Israel trips & acted as our Logistics Coordinator. Their involvement reminded me just how much each and every one of us in our Chicago Jewish community can do to impact this next generation of Jews.
We also visited the magnificent Alhambra in Grenada and spent a truly magical Shabbos in Gibraltar with wild but safe monkeys roaming the summit. It is a hidden gem of the Jewish world, and you definitely should visit to experience the rebirth of Judaism in the Iberian Peninsula while enjoying some of the best tax-free shopping in the world!
For more information about Project 613, please go to www.project613.com.