2016-08-17 / Home

Music-filled trip to Spain inspirational for Beth El, TBS members

By DAVID PORTNOE Voice Editor


Cantors (from left), Elizabeth Shammash from Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, PA, Alisa Pomerantz-Boro of Cong. Beth El in Voorhees, and Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, in Girona. Cantors (from left), Elizabeth Shammash from Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, PA, Alisa Pomerantz-Boro of Cong. Beth El in Voorhees, and Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, in Girona. Twenty-Seven Southern New Jersey residents, including three cantors, were among 331 people from across the country who experienced a unique musical and historical tour of Jewish Spain. Hosted by the Cantors Assembly, the Conservative movement’s cantorial organization, the July 3-14 trip offered a glimpse into Spain’s Jewish past as well as a taste of the Sephardic musical tradition.

Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz- Boro of Cong. Beth El in Voorhees said that the 50 cantors who were among the 331 participants used their voices and their neshamas (souls) to explore aspects of Jewish Spain. Hazzan Pomerantz Boro, the current president elect of the Cantors Assembly, co-chaired the local contingent with Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill. Also on the trip was Cantor Leon Sher, music director at Cong. Beth El and leader of the South Jersey chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.


Taking a moment to relax during the trip were TBS members (from left), Gerry Grossman, Bobbi Grossman, Deenie Ettenson, and Alan Ettenson. Taking a moment to relax during the trip were TBS members (from left), Gerry Grossman, Bobbi Grossman, Deenie Ettenson, and Alan Ettenson. “Another goal of the mission was to experience the culture of Spain, and to bring our congregants and cantors together in a unique way,” said Cantor Cohen. She said that the trip included four major concerts and services that were filled with music. She added that it was a great bonding experience for everyone involved.

“The concerts were attended not only by our group, but by local people, both Jews and non-Jews,” said Cantor Sher.

Trip participants interviewed for this story said that one of the noteworthy aspects of the inspirational and educational experience was the fact that Spain’s Jewish community, once a center of world Jewry, is now a shadow of its former self. Estimates are that there are 25,000 Jews in all of Spain today. Prior to the expulsion in 1492, Spain’s Jewish community numbered about 600,000, and included some of the world’s leading Jewish poets, thinkers, and religious leaders.


Cong. Beth El trip participants on Montjuic, Barcelona. “Montjuic” is translated as “Jew Mountain” in the Catalan language. At the site were (front, from left), Joel Silbert, Ellen Podell, and Jeanette Adler; with (middle, from left), Carol Silbert, Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro, Nikki Feldman, Stephen Boro; and (rear, from left), Cantor Leon Sher, Len Feldman, and Jay Adler. Cong. Beth El trip participants on Montjuic, Barcelona. “Montjuic” is translated as “Jew Mountain” in the Catalan language. At the site were (front, from left), Joel Silbert, Ellen Podell, and Jeanette Adler; with (middle, from left), Carol Silbert, Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro, Nikki Feldman, Stephen Boro; and (rear, from left), Cantor Leon Sher, Len Feldman, and Jay Adler. “Many Jews from our community go to Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. We had an opportunity to go to smaller towns, and for me that carried sadness,” said Stephen Boro. He said that a crossroads of the Jewish community was uprooted and dispersed, and a lot of history was lost.

Joel Silbert said that one motivation for going on the trip was a visit to Beth El by Rabbi Devin Villarreal, a scholar-in-residence who spoke about the Converso experience, the Sephardic Jews who maintained elements of Jewish practice in secret. “That was very meaningful,” he said.

“Joel and I had been in Spain before,” said Carol Silbert, but she noted how special this trip was as it combined the Jewish history, the music, and the bonding experienced by the group.

“We visited synagogues that are now museums, but no active synagogues,” said Sol Genauer of TBS. Len Feldman, a Beth El trip participant, noted that it is not a thriving Jewish community.

Carolyn Jacobs, a TBS participant, was struck by the religious history of Spain, a major crossroads of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish life. Many sites were “recycled,” having been synagogues before becoming mosques, then churches. “The Christians got rid of the Moors, then the Jews,” she said.

Marcia Brown said that in every city they visited, they took walking tours of areas that had once been Jewish Quarters. They saw the remains of the Jewish communities and sang songs with the cantors. “It was so moving and also so sad that those communities are gone,” said the TBS member.

Ellen Podell said that in Eastern Europe, there is a growing interest among younger people in their Jewish roots. “There is none of that in Spain,” said the Beth El member.

Deenie Ettenson, a TBS member who also belongs to Cong. Mikveh Israel, a Sephardic synagogue in Philadelphia, said that there are few Sephardic Jews in the United States. She said that what happened in Spain “was kind of like a Holocaust of its time.”

Hazzan Pomerantz-Boro said that the trip really drove home to her the importance of remembering and keeping the history of Spanish Jewry alive. “That was scary and depressing—the lack of what’s left is depressing,” she said.

“Growing up, in Hebrew school, I never knew anything about the Jews of Spain,” said Gerry Grossman of TBS. He said the history will be lost if it is not taught.

Len Feldman said that the major highlight of the trip for him were the cantorial concerts. He said that there were so many young male and female cantors on the trip. “That gave me encouragement about the future,” he said.

Andy Blackstone, of TBS, said that the trip really provided an introduction to Sephardic music. “Quite a few of the cantors were born in other countries— Uruguay, Argentina, Greece—a union of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic culture. It was extraordinary.” His wife Amy said that she would love to have more Sephardic music during synagogue services. “It was so beautiful,” she said.

Looking back on the trip, Cantor Cohen said that the takeaway for her was what she heard from a leader of the Jewish community in Madrid. He had moved there from Argentina. They had built up enough support to commission the first Torah written in Spain in 500 years.

“It gave me chills, but who will read it,” said Cohen, noting that the Madrid Jewish leader has sent his own teenage children to Chicago. 

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