Working with B’nei Anousim in Portugal

Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow traveled to Lisbon in September to teach this special group of individuals. Their visit was made possible by funding from the World Zionist Organization Pluralistic Religious Services allocation. Below are excerpts from a letter sent from the Harlows to Rabbi Joe Wernik, Executive vice-president of Masorti Olami:

Dear Joe,

When you asked us to go to Lisbon in September to meet with, teach, and assess the needs of this community, we had no idea what to expect. We now thank you for having given us the privilege of spending twelve days with this group of people who are passionate in their desire to become Jews halakhically. It was a truly inspiring experience.

We arrived on a Tuesday morning, to be greeted at the airport by Marco Moreyra, the interim chairman of this community, and his wife Anabela. After getting installed in our hotel, we met over lunch with them and several other members of the community, to plan for the coming days.

The members meet in space rented from an Ashkenazi synagogue, Ohel Yaakov, in a dilapidated building that certainly would be condemned by U.S. standards. After climbing a rickety staircase in a dimly lit hallway, we entered the modest space on the second floor. It is spotless. The group recently had painted the interior rooms, which they use.

One room is a Beit Knesset with seating to accommodate 25–30. The aron kodesh (ark) contains seven or eight Sifrei Torah that are the property of Ohel Yaakov Congregation, Members of that congregation brought them from Eastern Europe as they fled the Shoah. Although Ohel Yaakov congregation has dwindled to only a few people, they are still incorporated. The children and grandchildren of the founders have a deep emotional attachment to “the concept” of the congregation. We were told that they hold services there only two times a year, one of which is Kol Nidrei.

There are also a kitchen, a bathroom, and a center room with a large table that they use as a Beit Midrash. This is where we held our classes.

There was great excitement when we met on the first night at 7:00 PM. After appropriate introductions and a short conversation, Jules outlined what he hoped to accomplish with them during the next two weeks. They were like sponges, ready to absorb everything. Notebooks were opened, pencils poised.

…many people coming through Lisbon who listened to their stories and never bothered to contact them again. We promised them that this would not happen with us.

And so we began our twelve days with this remarkable group. They came every evening even though they work or attend classes during the day. Some of them had to travel over one hour each way. We studied from 7:00 to 10:00, and sometimes till 10:30 or 11:00 p.m…

They describe themselves as “survivors — survivors of the Inquisition”. Each one has a story to tell, and we heard them over the course of our meetings with them. Each story is different but each has a common theme, and that is an almost mystical connection to Judaism that links them to their ancestors during the time of the Inquisition. They consider themselves to be Jews, but understand that they must go through a conversion process in order to be accepted halakhically.

After three nights of intense learning together and candid, sometimes painful, conversations, we felt that we truly had come together almost as a family. That feeling was borne out on Friday night.

Jules had been teaching from the prayer book, starting with kriat sh’ma and its blessings, emphasizing structure and themes as well as specific content, what they mean and “how to pray.” They wanted to know details, asking, for example, “When do we stand? Why? When do we bow? How?”

On Friday night, Jules told them that he would daven first, by himself since they did not comprise a minyan, not being Jews. They respected that. He then led them in a learner’s service, including explanations and instructions. Also, they could interrupt with questions.

We taught them traditional melodies, and to our pleasant surprise they could join in with the Hebrew of Yedid Nefesh, L’kha Dodi, and Hodu Ladonai, Yigdal, and Adon Olam. We also taught a Carlebach melody for one of the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms, shiru ladonai shir chadash. They really got into it when, after we had sung it, Navah spontaneously led everyone in a line dance through the rooms of their space and then back to the Beit Knesset. They were enraptured.

The communal potluck dinner was the first time they had ever eaten together as a community. Several of the women brought vegetarian dishes that they had prepared at home. We presented them with a challah cover that we had brought as a gift to them. They were very moved by this, declaring that this was the beginning of their collection of ritual objects. There is one bakery in Lisbon that bakes challah every Friday under the hashgakhah of the Orthodox rabbi.

Jules made Kiddush (we had brought along a Kiddush cup.) This was followed by n’tilat yadayim and hamotzi. They knew about all of this, and in fact, some of them include them in their meals at their homes. However, they didn’t know a melody for Kiddush, or why we don’t talk before hamotzi after n’tilat yadayim why we shake salt on the challah, why there are two challot, why we remove knives before Birkhat Hamazon. They were mesmerized. They always wanted to know more. Navah told them that in our home no one gets dessert without singing zemirot. She taught some easy tunes and they all participated with enthusiasm.

At the conclusion of the meal, they all implored, “Can we do this again next Shabbat?” We were delighted, and the following Friday night was even more special, because they anticipated what was coming with great joy.

When we met for Havdalah they were proud that they had the words on a printed card, and that many of them knew the words. They never had heard it chanted before. We suggested that the lights be turned out, and we sang Eliyahu Hanavi with them. We stood in a circle by candlelight and taught them how to sing shavua tov. It was truly very moving, to experience havdalah through their eyes. After havdalah they asked us to write the words of Eliyahu Hanavi on their chalkboard. They loved singing it.

As a reward for the first week of intense learning we decided to invite them to be our guests for an evening out together Saturday night. They suggested Fado music and a fish dinner. What fun we had and what shared memories we created together.

We suggested that they take a day off on Sunday. They vehemently refused. “As long as you are here, we have an opportunity to learn so much.” And so after a late night out, we re-convened the next day at 5:00 PM for our three-hour session. Since it was Sunday they didn’t have to go to work and could meet earlier. The tempo of the following week was the same as the first. Each night we met for three to three and one half hours.

Jules began to teach themes and structure for the liturgy of the Yamim Noraim. He emphasized the section of Selichot on Yom Kippur as well as the shlosh esreh middot. We decided together that after havdalah the next Saturday night we would daven together at a Selichot service. And so it was. When we parted that final night, the group promised that they would continue to meet for Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah. But, they asked, “How can we do it without you?” We said we would make a tape that would guide them in the service, with the melodies and instructions. Then they added, “but please include all of the songs you taught us and the melody for Birkhat Hamazon, Havdalah, and Eliyahu Hanavi. “ We promised to do all of that, and told them that we would give them an exam on our next visit. They said that they would make CD’s from our tape to distribute to each member of the community, and that they would all study hard to be ready for the exam. (We sent them the tape shortly after our return to New York.) We left Lisbon the following morning at 6:00 AM. It was hard to leave them.

They are all waiting to convert and are delighted that the Masorti Olami movement has taken their cause to heart. They told of many people coming through Lisbon who listened to their stories and never bothered to contact them again. We promised them that this would not happen with us. We said that a commitment has been made to assist them on their road to becoming Jews…

B'vracha,

Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow

Editor’s note: The Harlows will be returning to Lisbon in December to continue their teaching. We thank Rabbi Adrian Gottfried from in Sao Paulo, Brazil for sending Portuguese/Hebrew siddurim to the kehillah. The congregation is in need of tallitot and tefillin as well as other ritual objects. If you would like to make a donation, please contact our office: mail @ masortiolami.org