JJC Israel Journey Full Day 1

After traveling with the Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain, it is an honor and privilege to lead a group of 26 to our ancestral homeland. After an overnight flight from JFK, the majority of the group arrived Monday night and headed to our welcome dinner at the Maganda Restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter. After filling up on salads, we feasted on shipudim/skewers/shishlik and headed to our hotel to rest up!

After a delicious Israeli breakfast- fresh breads, fruits, cheeses, with your choice of herring, egg souffles, and even ice cream, we began our first full day in Israel exploring Tel Aviv, named “Hill of Spring” after Theodor Herzl’s call to return to a Alteneuland. Our tours took us to 4 unique locations, all incorporating the music of Israel to tell their respective stories.

We begin at the Palmach Museum. Palmach is the hebrew abbreviation of Plugot Mahatz. Founded in 1941, the Palmach, the striking force of the Hagana, was the precursor to the IDF. This interactive museum gave us a 90 minute tale of those who made up the pioneer defenders of the State of Israel- teens and 20somethings (Yitchak Rabin was an elder statesmen when he commanded his group at the age of 25!).

The group assembles around a campfire and sings this Israeli classic (and a favorite of our longtime Cantor Abraham Marton z’l).

Seeing the valleys and the glorious land, in awe of the place they would be asked to defend and lay down their lives for, the group sings Shir Haemek.

We hear the theme song for the Palmach.

As we take the journey (with real live footage and a feature film made for the museum), the group connects with the different stories of those making up the Palmach- new olim, holocaust survivors, 2nd generation pioneers, etc. We hear about the struggle during the War of Independence and hear the melody of the heartwrenching song, Bab el Wad.

After the Palmach Museum, we travel to Nachalat Binyamin, the Arts & Crafts Fair adjacent to the Shuk. The group enjoys some free time and I even bump into Ami Yares and his bride to be (Mazel tov). Ami visited Jacksonville a number of years ago as a member of the band, The SHuk. How ironic!!


As we enter the Rabin Museum (20% dedicated to his life, rest to Israeli history), we enter a large room with video of the night Rabin was assassinated. The crowd and everyone on the dais chants the words to Shir Lashalom (song for peace), seen below. The words were found in Rabin’s pocket following his murder just 15 minutes after the peace rally ended.

The museum flows similarly to the recent documentary Rabin, In His Own Words (highly recommended). Since the State of Israel sponsored the museum (and not as a memorial to Rabin), they do paint a fairly streamlined view of every conflict- war/political campaign etc. Our group learns a new perspective – the height of the Generals of ’67 and the negativity towards politicians and military following the Yom Kippur War of ’73.


We feasted at Na Laga’at Center (Na Laga’at means “please to touch”), located at the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv. The Center is comprised of the Nalaga’at Theater, home to the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble. We ate at Cafe Kapish, served by very friendly waiters who also were deaf.

We were blessed to see the performance “Not by Bread Alone,” an interactive and thought provoking story in which the actors share their hopes and dreams with the audience. One of the most striking aspects of this performance is the choreography- there were a number of emotional moments in which the main narrator (deaf and blind) maneuvered across the stage with the helpful hands and arms of his actor counterparts. It really was poetry in motion.

An older woman, who in the story courts an older gentleman, plays a song on the keyboard that she remembers from childhood (written in 1939). The audience is given the lyrics to sing along with her beautiful playing.


At the conclusion of the program, the audience is again asked to join in with another song- actors make out the sign language so one can sing the song with their hands and their mouths (unfamiliar but stirring song).

The evening culminates a powerful day showing the spirit of Israel and the spirit of Israelis- strongest when they work together to create such impactful moments. I’m so grateful to have experienced such a moment this evening!



Cantors Mission to Spain Final Day/Thoughts

As the Israeli Ambassador to Spain put it at our Sunday night concert, “Music transcends time. It is the image of our souls.” Whether dancing for a packed house for Shabbat services, an impromptu chanting of Ani Maamin in a church (that was once a mosque, that was once a synagogue), or a sing-along of Israel’s greatest hits, our mission to Spain showed us all that beyond Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives), Lev Yisrael Chai (the heart of Israel lives).

During our last day, Professor Berk reiterated this idea that perception is reality. This goes for human history, but as we go from the learning and singing, this “camp-like” bubble of an existence over these past two weeks, away from the chaos of society and the Pokemon Gos of the world, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that the perception of both the past and present remain as genuine and introspective as possible, so that the future remains bright.

Our last day  included a morning tour of Seville, including a visit to the Cathedral Palace (where Columbus can be found) and a tour of the Royal Alcazar Palace of Seville. The evening was punctuated by a Flamenco performance and Israeli song festival at the Real Venta De Antequera, a place that normally hosts bull fights!

Berk’s last lecture of the trip was sponsored by my synagogue, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, and I do want to thank the synagogue and leadership for giving me opportunities like this for personal and professional growth! Most of Berk’s lecture focused on Franco’s rule and this play between European countries following World War II. To be honest, my focus during this time period was always on Germany, Poland, Russia and even Italy. Hearing about Spain’s position in this period brought the art work we saw at the beginning of the trip (the film about mass poverty, Picasso’s Guernica) back to life. We can say “never forget”, but if we never know, it’s hard to never forget. As the lecture turned into a question and answer, Berk focused his energy on what he saw as the eventual inclusion of Turkey into the EU. As the gateway to the Middle East, Turkey is an important political/military ally. As the borders would open with its inclusion into the EU, the conversation about security is a very serious one. This talk, two days before an attempted military coup in Turkey!


  • I learned a lot about the interplay between religions; the interactions between factions of religions. Spain’s Jews had a Golden Age, and there was a not so golden age. I learned a lot about post-WWII Spain. Meeting with and hearing the stories of Masorti Jews in Spain today, I found it worrisome that we don’t pay more attention to this group of Jews trying to create a Casa Sefarad in Spain once again. The Joint Distribution Committee gives very little to the Masorti communities in Europe. Hopefully through twinning and through education, this will change. The Golden age will never return, but love of culture, love of a modern Spanish Jewry can!
  • I love being in a country where everyone pronounces Dafna (airport/customs personal, hotel receptionists, bartenders) the right way!

  • Kippah- I felt weird not wearing a kippah (for security reasons it seemed like more people went kippah commando or hat on this trip vs. Germany, ironically). It’s not like I didn’t scream tourist with my fanny pack, diaper backpack, and camera bag.
  • Most importantly, I realized that more than the cantorial music they sing, these cantors on our trip, and I gather the same can be said about the cantorate in general, are loved. They are beloved by their friends and congregants (and congregants who are friends). Hearing how non-cantor trip participants (of which there were 300+) spoke about my cantorial friends in such glowing ways was truly inspiring. As a social experiment, one need only look at the dozens of photos I posted from our concerts for those back home to enjoy. These were not videos of cantors singing, but cantors smiling and loving what they do. To wake up to hundreds of notifications saying that hundreds of people that I don’t know loved/liked/commented on my photos shows the impact our cantors are making today. The way in which we interpret music is important, but the way in which we engage with our community through our personalities and stories means so much more. From strength to strength!














Cantors Mission to Spain Day 8

Granada and Seville

As I mentioned yesterday, Granada was the last Muslim stronghold. We skip forward to the yer 1500, where Granada is now the home to forced conversions. Our guide, Rosa, paints a picture of 1502, as Muslims lined in front of their former mosque (now a church) ready to be baptized. Conversion often created more rifts within the Christian community, as new Christians were designated separately from the old by being classified as “Moriscos.” In many instances, the “old” Christians were deemed clean (implying impurity for those newly converted). The church had long viewed converts on an equal playing field.

Rosa led us on a morning tour of Granada as we saw this juxtaposition once again of Islamic and Western architecture. In fact, the style of architecture changes like in Granada later on than in other communities, strengthening the tie to a more moorish style.

Our tour takes us to the museum of torture (Leora and I visited a Museo Della Tortura on our honeymoon while in San Gimignano, Italy), with a second floor tribute to the history of the Jews. The museum hosts a number of Jewish artifacts from Spain and throughout Europe with the hope of sharing the rich culture of the Jewish people (and therefore showing what was lost). We saw letters of conversos renouncing their Jewish faith, while using a secret code to communicate (writing in lemon!). Straight out of a National Treasure movie. My favorite artifact on display had to be the Arbol de Jesse from Granada (1618).

As we glanced over the hillside with a majestic view of the Alhambra Palace, Rosa explained that at one point during Muslim rule, occupants of Granada received their own land to become self sufficient. This makes a lot of sense given the way the Alhambra layout also has space for gardens in order to be self-sufficient. When the Christians took over, they kept hearing about all this land, called “Karen” (or Keren, as in Keren Kayemet Liyisrael), but they thought the locals were saying Carmen, so that’s why there are so many “Carmen” spaces throughout the region.

As we depart for a 3 hour bus ride to Seville, we learn about the vast number of monasteries and convents. One monastery is now a boarding school, yet there are “19 convents and counting” within Granada. Sounds like a reality tv show in the making to me!!

Berk Lecture

We were treated to a brief talk while on our way to Seville. Some of Berk’s insights:

We left off at the end of the 19th century. Setting the stage for the mood of the people:

There were revolts amongst peasants, workers, middle class; strong anarchist and Marxist movements. The low point is La Semana Tragica, July 25-Aug 2 1909, known in English as the Tragic Week- a series of bloody confrontations between the Spanish army and the aforementioned working classes/anarchists/socialists.

This unrest of 1909 couldn’t be seen in a Spanish vacuum when political theories and movements didn’t stop at the boarder crossing.

With the Russian Revolution in October 1917, we see the appeal of communism and the fear of communism. The appeal had a messianic feel to it- families like the Rosenbergs appealed to the idea of communism (not for the $$$). The leftists were motivated to action while the right (against Lenin), stayed socialist.

At the same time, since this is still a lecture on Spain, we see the last remnant of the Spanish empire in Spanish Morocco (we’ll learn later from our evening speaker of the various types of Moroccan Jews- Spanish, French, etc). The unpopular war in Morocco (in which 14,000 were slaughtered), with the humiliation of the Spanish armies contributed to the military coup of 1923. Primo De Rivera becomes dictator until 1930, when he leaves the country, followed by the monarchy (now the second expulsion of the monarchy of 1931 finally has context!!).

Massive rioting eventually leads to the republic establishment in 1931. When Hitler ran for office in 1932, Stalin said he would be out in 6 months. However, when Communists and socialists would not make any alliances, Hitler had his stranglehold. In 1934, the Kremlin party line changes. Now, it’s all against fascism, known as the Popular Front.

Socialists and Communists win mass majority in Spain. The Church and Republican army are obviously against it. With the summer revolt of 1936, Spain begins its Civil War. 1 million people die in the civil war. This civil war is the Vietnam of the 1930s.

Franco’s side has unity, but it also has guns and aircraft. The Republic has nothing. Salazar, Mussolini and Germany provide funding to Franco and support Guernica.

For the Republic side, the British and French send nada with their policy of appeasement in full effect. As Berk puts it, “no one wants to go in the meat grinder again.” America, too, is combatting isolationism.

Consequences of Civil War

Berk points out people turning their backs on Jews because they didn’t support their cause during the civil war. This is right out of the second paragraph of the shema- you pat my back, I’ll pat yours, but if you don’t pat my back, I’m not going to pat yours.

Stalin looks at the world through the prism of Leninism: as Hitler advances west, it must be a capitalist plot to release him eastward. As we know, perception is reality. We hear the story of Max litvinov, the Jewish foreign minister of Russia, replaced by Molitov. Molitov meets the German foreign minister as Hitler is about to invade Poland (Britain and France have alliance with Poland). The question arises- would Russia attack Germany from the east and make it a two front war? Or could Germany promise something in return for Russia’s help? Germany offers up Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and part of the Ukraine. The Soviet people will not know about the deal until Gorbachev.

This is all context for Franco’s iron fist rule from 1939-1975. Franco cracks down on all areas that would dare challenge him. For example, 7,000 high school teachers are executed during his reign.

Evening Program

It’s getting late so I’ll just mention that we had a wonderful meeting with Moses Hazan, from Morocco (most Jews in Seville are from Morocco), who teaches us about the Jews of Seville (lowlight includes June 6 1391 progrom, Spanish Inquisition beginning in Seville in 1478, last trial in 1781) . Cantor Aaron BenSoussan led us in a Moroccan maariv and Cantor Dov Keren led a powerful El Malei prayer for those in the Sephardic community that perished.











Cantors Mission to Spain Days 6 and 7


Sunday morning we traveled to Toledo. Our resources (our guide and guidebooks) gave varying opinions as to the origin of the phrase, “Holy Toledo.” Either it was a term originated by the Sephardic Jews, or a reference to the many churches housed in Toledo. Either way, the city of Toledo is a gorgeous vestige in time.

It was fascinating to visit two synagogues created centuries apart, only a block away from each other (sound familiar?). I am always taken by the acoustics of these synagogues. Architectural gems, these synagogues have amazing sound, as shown by my video of Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi on Facebook. We’ll also see a common theme of writing out certain key prayers on the walls. Our guides will paint a balanced picture of religious life in Medieval Spain- often the local religious communities did in fact work hand in hand. In fact, the idea that Arab artisans wrote the Hebrew lettering in one synagogue is but one of many synergies between communities and their worship spaces. Over time, we’ll see a number of worship spaces change hands, converting into mosques and churches without changing up every aspect of the space. As an example, the first synagogue visited was named Santa Maria la Blanca Monumento Nacional. Antigua Sinagoga deal Siglo XII.

Walking around the area, there are a number of Jewish shops and for the first time (other than our Maccabi Restaurant), we see a visible “kosher” sign in a few places. Toledo is a welcomed change from the bustling cities of Barcelona and Madrid, but the small windy streets do create some crazy driving scenes. We exit the Jewish quarter to find a world of Mazapan (the world’s largest monastery made out of marzipan, as well as the largest Don Quijote. We also see souvenir shops being housed in 400 year old buildings.

With regard to the height of Jewish Toledo, It’s interesting to note that the Jewish community was later aided by those scholars who fled during the reign of the Berber dynasties.

One final note from Toledo: often you’ll find musicians playing for money at many of the major tourist stops. Today’s story involves a guitarist playing a familiar refrain. I immediately connect the melody to a niggun we had used on Friday night in Madrid. I learned that the melody we sang Friday night derived from a pop song, so whether you are bringing in Shabbat or playing outside a Cathedral, music can be transported anywhere you have an ear ready to listen.

Sunday evening Teatro Goya (next to a golf school and go-cart track on the other side of town) played host to a grand concert of “World Jewish Music.” As part of the chorus, we sang everything from Avinu Malkeinu to Hallelujah to a salute to Israel. The eclectic concert showcased familiar faces as well as newcomers to the Cantors Assembly. We also received greetings from the Israeli Ambassador to Spain! You can catch my catalog of some of my favorite facial expressions from the concert on Facebook.

Córdoba and Granada

Monday morning came bright and early as we took the high speed rail south towards Córdoba, home of Moses Maimonides. After seeing a statue of the great Rambam, we headed to the Casa Sefarad to hear how the local guide incorporates Sephardic music into teaching visitors about the Jewish tradition (video on FB). We toured the former mosque turned church (a common theme will be brewing). You get the sense from seeing Córdoba (and later Granada) that this is a different culture- the architecture, the story lines (we are now in Andalucia FYI). Muslims Jews and Christians coexist. And Córdoba was a juggernaut – when cities like Madrid had populations numbering in the fifteen to twenty thousand range, Córdoba was pushing a half million. To show the Jewish impact, our guide, who identifies as Christian, showed us how her parents surnames both had Jewish origins!

Our 3 hour bus ride (with a detour for snacks at a rest stop with the worst possible location for a kids play area) brought us to Granada (we learned that the name means pomegranate), the last stand of Muslim rule before it fell to the Christians. We learned the significant date of December 30, 1066, when an angry mob stormed the palace in Granada and murdered Joseph Ibn Nagrela, the vizier to the Berber King, not to be confused with a similar sounding king. The massacre that followed wiped out the Jewish population, either by death or by getting the rest to leave.

We’ll explore a little more of Granada in the AM, but we did receive a late evening VIP tour of the Alhambra (meaning “the red one”) Palace (very different than Jacksonville’s Alhambra theatre), home of the Spanish monarchy for over a hundred years. It was interesting seeing Isabel and Ferdinand’s living quarters, having converted over (pun intended) the original use of the palace. You can still make out the Arabic on the walls. This is an interesting parallel to the Hebrew prayers we have found in the same level of synagogue walls throughout our trip.

Musical note #2: As we walked through Córdoba, we were treated by a guitarist (pictured below) who played Bei Mir Bistu Shein. Small world!















Cantors Mission to Spain Days 4 and 5

Our morning began with a grand tour of Madrid, highlighted by three main stops: the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and the Centre de Arte Reina Sophia. Our bus split in half with each group going with one of our fantastic Madrid guides, Marta and Susannah.

Taking in the city, we noticed signs from the recent LGBT Pride parade, as well as banners for the support of taking in refugees. We learned that this is the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death (wrote Don Quijote).

While visiting the Royal Palace, we learned the history of the Spanish monarchy, with a special emphasis on Charle III and the current Spanish King and his family. It was here we learned that President Obama would be visiting the palace towards the end of this weekend, so each room became much more than a history lesson. The dining room (converted from 3 of of the former queen’s changing rooms) adapts to whomever and how many are eating at a given time, with place-settings for at least 140. As a side note, there were five glasses set out at each place setting for the gala event this weekend! As an even greater side note, we did have more silverware at our Friday night dinner than the President will have at his seat! The President and First Lady will sit towards the center of the table alongside the King and Queen.

It was fascinating to hear our guide use the word “expulsion” on numerous occasions describing the second expulsion of the Royal family in 1931.

We traveled to the Reina Sophia, a modern art museum with some powerful imagery and multimedia. Our introduction to the museum was a short documentary in black and white film showing those suffering in poverty a generation ago. This is still something quite palpable as you walk the streets of Madrid (and Barcelona). The art works do not shy away from political or social matters. I’m not used to having guided tours in art museums, but our guides’ attention to detail added extra layers to the pieces we looked at. Most importantly, we delved into the stories behind Picasso’s Guernica. As an art history student, I remember seeing many pieces of art for the first time via slides projected on a wall. The major disadvantage was not being able to realize the scale of a piece. I thought pieces like Jackson Pollack’s Autumn Rhythm or Picasso’s Guernica would be a decent size in real life, but I never imagined them taking up an entire wall of a museum. In contrast, a painting of Henry VIII in the Thyssen was TINY. In reading my favorite Top 10 book, I found out that the best sculpture in the museum was Julio Gonzalez’s Daphne (pronounced Dafna as in Pasta or Kafka) . I felt it was beshert to have the work sound just like my youngest daughter’s name (often mispronounced), but alas it was on loan!!!

Friday night was a true delight. A number of cantors co-led our service entitled “A World of Jewish Music for Erev Shabbat.” I was able to introduce a Latin-inspired Mizmor L’david that I had written for our Shabbat in the Round service a few years ago. You can listen to a less-Latiny version here.
It is a great feeling to hear 300+ people learning and singing a melody that they are all hearing for the first time. The energy continued throughout the whole service.

Our Shabbat morning service started with Shaharit at 9:30 and ended at 12:20, unable to touch the 4 hour gem from Germany. However, there was a wonderful flow to the service, with a few particular highlights for me. Our Rabbi in Residence of the trip, Yoshi Zweibeck (works with our mission co-chair Cantor Nate Lam) taught us (succinctly I might add) about the proper to argue with another- to find a balance of tolerance and pluralism. He also wrote a fantastic rhyme for our Torah introduction that rivaled Kendrick Lamar. A second highlight was hearing this guy Henry Rosenblum incorporate wedding melodies into the Musaf Kedusha (autocorrects to Medusa). I think he is celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary this Monday, but it’s not like I know him at all. I could ask my wife (his eldest daughter).

A final highlight was hearing the melodies used by Hazzan Annelise Ocanto-Romo, currently at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, PA, but previously serving at Beth Israel in Worcester, MA. Having grown up in Worcester, I was familiar with some of the “Worcester standards” introduced by our longtime Cantor, Stephen Freedman. Stephen had introduced a great Ashrei melody a number of years ago that obviously continued to stick with the congregation through multiple cantors that followed. The melody caught on with the congregation this morning, as most were hearing it for the first time. If you were to poll the congregation, they may have thought that it was hot off the press. Quite the contrary- the melody was written a number of years ago by Cantor David Brandhandler z’l, who passed away recently at the age of 104. I was lucky to meet Cantor Brandhandler at last year’s Chicago convention and thanked him then for the melody. It just goes to show the power of song to bring joy and excitement to a community even after the composer has left us in body.

After a brief Kiddush many of us made the long walk (and well worth it) to the Prado museum, where we spent a few hours going through the museum filled with Carravagio, Durer, Diego Velazquez, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco and even Raphael (his “Portrait of a Cardinal” mimicked the Mona Lisa in many ways). I was able to get a greater appreciation for the Spanish great Goya (his famous work in the museum is quite dark, but the top floor contained a number of rooms devoted to colorful and bright paintings by Goya. I was also able to learn about and become a fan of new painters like Beruete y Moret as well as Rico y Ortega.

After minha, we heard from the Rabbi of the local Masorti (Conservative) congregation. He gave us a mixed bag of information about the Jewish community today- it’s trials and the potential good heading its way. They have a Sunday school with 36 students (from a pool of 3000 Jews in Madrid- for context, Jacksonville has 4-5 times that population). The Rabbi’s own sons attend Chicagoland Day School in, you guessed it, Chicago!

Here’s some good news: people are discovering their Jewish heritage and since the end of Franco’s and Catholicism’s reign (it’s amazing how many people talk openly about despising him), people are soul searching, and even finding out that they have Converso roots. A common story is having a family tradition of having a ham leg in the house, for at one time, the family wanted the outside community to think that they had fully converted. When people are ready for conversion, the rabbi takes them to a lake (only warm enough in June andJuly) rather than the local mikveh, which is closed to them!

That’s the bad news- we learned that Casa Sefarad, where we visited and were welcomed on Thursday night, has little to do with the local Masorti community and is there for more political reasons than anything else.

Some great news. Having acquired two torahs (first a non-kosher one and finally a kosher one), the community has begun the process of writing its own Torah, the first Torah to be written in Spain in 500 years! B’sha’a Tova!

After a great Havdala led by Tahl Ben Yehuda (another shout out to Jacksonville), we are off to Toledo tomorrow! Hasta Manana!





Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain Days 2 and 3

Wednesday afternoon, Eliezer Papo gives a great lecture to fill in some of the gaps and answer questions about the community of Sefarad. Papo reminds us that there is always some subversive storyline in the folk lore and etymology of a place to heighten it’s importance. For example, a common pun of Sefarad was “sof rad”, meaning “end of the earth.” Poland got the same treatment, for they associated Polinia with “PO lan ya”, meaning “God dwells here.” In fact, Sefarad is first mentioned by Ovadiah, although Papo claims that this is in reference to Sardes on the Mediterranean.

When we left off with our history lesson from Stephen Berk, Islamic rule was becoming divisive while the Christian faith suddenly had a united cause to fight for. Andalusian society (spreading through most of southern Spain to include Granada and Seville) was under Moorish rule for most of the 8th-15th centuries. As Professor Papo put it, they could not see themselves, and their children, fighting Christianity. They had done well for themselves financially, so the class wars between the affluent sons of Islam and the low-income Christian brethren was on.

While I seemed to glorify the relative successes of Jews under Islamic Spain, Papo points out that Muslim Spain had its peaks and its valleys. Infighting, new regimes, the abolishment of Christianity and Judaism as recognized religions (Spain’s success was linked directly to allowing other religions to thrive), all led to the slow demise of Islamic rule.

Papo and Berk describe a tale of two rabbis- those rabbis that converted to Christianity, thus acquiring a new religious leader with a familiarity with the ancient text (see Moses’ hands guiding the sea to part as the first sign of the cross); and those rabbis like Maimonides who, as the Jewish elite, left Spain for greener pastures.

Speaking of rabbis, Professor Papo draws a direct line from the rabbis of Babylonia to the rabbis of Spain. In his eyes, you judge whether a community is at the center of Jewish life vs. the periphery based on one principle: if you import rabbis, you are marginal, while if you export rabbis, you are central. The center for rabbinic leadership shifts from Babylon to Tunisia. Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi goes to Fez, Morocco and then finally to Spain. Alfasi, known as the RIF, teaches Yosef Ibn Megas, who teaches the poet Yehudah Halevi as well as Maimon, the father of Maimonides. In making this family tree, Papo suggests that there is a Sephardic way of thought (practical) and an Ashkenazic way (theoretical). He tells a story of a community looking for a new rabbi. They stipulate that they are looking for a rabbi with one hand. When asked why, they respond “the old rabbi always said, “on one hand…, but on the other hand…”

As for sightseeing, we traveled a little over an hour outside Barcelona to the very well preserved community of Girona. The home of the Ramban, our group took a tour of the Jewish museum, which included a mikveh and a courtyard with a special gift from the famous Jewish artist Frank Meisler (See below). The Jews of Girona were active in for a few hundred years and quite chummy with the king, although the population never soared because at the end of the day, Girona is not a port town like Barcelona. While Barcelona Jewish life left in 1391, Girona, in the heart of Catalonia, thrived until the expulsion. Speaking of Catalonian, a factoid provided by our guide, Susanna #1: Jews spoke Catalonian and knew hebrew, but Ladino developed later. Who knew?!

We returned for an afternoon of visiting the street market (and seeing the first of two dozen museums for ham) before our Soul of Sefarad concert At Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica Catalana!

Thursday morning we took an early 3 hr train ride (1st class was great!) to Madrid. Some of passengers enjoyed meeting new friends while others learned all the lines to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Espanol.

Our bus tour stopped for 40 minutes for lunch, so Leora and I made it over to the Museo Thyssen. Thanks to my Top 10 book (highly recommended), we saw works by Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, El Greco, Hopper and Mondrian amongst others.

Our evening activity included a ruach filled welcome reception at the Sefarad Center, a site donated by the city of Madrid and a short walk to the city center. We sang and drank wine to bring our communities together! L’chaim!














Cantors Mission to Spain Day 1

Good morning (or evening)! We’ve had a wonderful first day in Barcelona after our overnight flight from Atlanta. While we missed a stunning a tour of the Barcelona Jewish Quarter (known as El Call), we were able to catch the morning presentation by Professor Berk entitled, “The ‘Greatest’ Year in Spanish History. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and two other things occurred.”

As I mentioned in my initial post, I had some idea of where Professor Berk would take the lectures, and in fact his train of logic included parallels (and differences) to his analysis of the German Jewish journey from our Germany trip 4 years ago. It is fascinating to see these two stories of German Jewry and Spanish Jewry, take center stage 4 years apart (in lecture time) and hundreds of years apart in real time.

A few notes from Berk:

1492 was a great year for Spanish Catholics. With the conquest of Granada on January 1, the last stand of Muslim Spain was now over.

On March 31 (I’ve mentioned this as being the only factoid I know about my birthday other than sharing it with Al Gore) of the same year, in the Ambassador’s room at the Alhambra, the edict was signed to expel the Jews from Spain. This was the culmination of a long series of events. Berk takes us back:

711- Muslims cross the Straights of Gibraltar to take Spain. At the same time, Berk brings up the Mongol horsemen who rode their way through multiple continents. The question arises: why move? And in this case, why are the Arabs expanding (or leaving) in 711? Jihad (spreading faith by war)? Food shortage? The classical definition of Jihad wins out.

When the Arabs go on the March, 97% of Spain is conquered. This is a “relatively” good time for the Jews. This academic hyopthesis, known as La Convivencia (the coexistence) claims that during this period from the early eight century until 1492, the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in “relative” peace.

I mentioned this in my earlier blog, but Berk reminds us of this relationship between Jew and Muslim as parallel to what we learned 4 years ago. He states “Don’t look at German-Jewish relations through the prism of the Holocaust, just like you shouldn’t look at the Muslim-Jewish relations through the prism of the present. Times for Jews were “relatively” good as Dhimmis (protected people’s)- legitimate but inferior contributors to society.

So what happens in 1492? The Church is on the March, unified, while there is disunity amongst the Arabs. This is the time of “militant orders” (it wasn’t uncommon to find militant monks).

And the Jews? As we know, in history, perception of reality is what matters. The growing mythology that began with Matthew Chapter 27 has taken form in two ways- Jews are guilty of ritual murder and host desecration so (rabbis supposedly stabbing wafers). In spite of the fact that 1/3 of the Jewish community in Spain opts to convert, there is a growing fear that Judaism will subvert Christianity from within. “Old” Christians are upset- and racist thought comes to the forefront with this notion of “purity of blood.” That was the fear of the church, but the state and the masses also had fears- the legislation that barred Jews from having certain rights was null and void when 1/3 of them converted. There’s lots more to write but that’s a good start on Berk’s lecture ….

We enjoyed a delicious meal at a local all Vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles (highly recommended!), and later we scarfed down Grilled lamp chops at Maccabi Kosher! Our group continued to Northeast Barcelona, seeing the great works of Antoni Gaudi, whose architecture defines much of the modern city. We passed La Pedrera, an undulating apartment block completed in 1912. This was Gaudi’s last civic work before dedicating 46 years of his life to the Sagrada Familia. We toured Parc Guell, a 14 year project by Gaudi in which the patron Eusebi Guell envisioned gardens, artistic villas and public spaces. This is home to famous mosaics, the most famous being a whimsical dragon. Gaudi’s perspective took into account that no two things in this universe are alike, and the variety of styles and colors incorporated into the park make for a magical experience.

We finished our touring for the day at the impactful Sagrada Familia. While the first stone was laid in 1882, the up and coming Gaudi took over as principal architect a year later and continued with the project until his untimely death in 1926. The church is filled with rich colors, mosaic tiling and gargoyles, as well as a helicoidal stone stairway. From inside and outside, and in spite of the fact that Gaudi has been deceased for the past 90 years as the church continues its construction, the project is totally Gaudi.

The project is financed solely by the millions who visit the sight (set to complete on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026). No political or religious financial aid. This fact, alongside the other spaces Gaudi worked on throughout Barcelona, paint an inspiring tail- that creativity is meant for the masses- we all need colors and spaces for radical thought – from our apartments to our places of worship.

Tomorrow, Girona!







Looking forward- Mission to Spain 2016

Throughout the past few weeks, and over the next month, Europe will be focused on two events: The Brexit vote and the Euro Football Championships. Yes, the UK’s fallout will have many long term implications for Europe as well as our global economy, I do want to focus for a moment on football. Having been in Germany 4 years ago during Germany’s run to the finals while on our last Cantors Assembly Mission, I discovered that the UEFA Euro tournament, more than the Olympics, takes over every household, bar and street corner. Up until mid-day today, Spain, the two time defending champion (meaning no one else has one since 2004),  lost in its Round of 16 battle, thanks to some gritty play by the Italian team. Now that Spain is out of it, the Cantors Assembly Mission can now FINALLY take center stage.

Although I don’t leave for our mission for another week, I did want to set the stage for a thought provoking trip. While writing my Germany blog, archived here, I brought up a recurring theme- the spirituality of a place. I have always believed that there was something unique to Eastern Europe; that even as things got bad, people stayed because beyond family and community (and in part because of them), there was a deep sense of spiritual home, even outside the Promised Land. Alongside plague and pogrom, Eastern Europe and Ashkenaz brought us Chazzanut and Chassidic masters. Both synagogue and the tisch uplifted us even in the darkest hour.

When looking at the Holocaust, we forget the communal life prior to those moments of devastation. And in Germany, we forget the role that Jews had played in the arts and sciences. As Professor Berk pointed out on our last mission, Germany was poised to rule the 20th century- culturally and politically…and Jews would be a part of it.

I say all of this in anticipation of our trip to Spain, a cultural center for the Jews prior to their expulsion in 1492. If our communal memory needs jogging to appreciate the gifts of Eastern European jewry that were lost only a century ago, we certainly need some extra jogging of our memory to recognize the contributions of Sepharad hundreds of years ago.

Whenever I have the joy of teaching Jewish history from 200CE- 1850 in Foundations of Judaism class, I try to focus on key dates, key individuals, and key takeaways. When teaching about the Jews of Spain, I reiterate every year that Jewish culture thrived under Islamic rule (and that we suffered under Christian rule), making a point to say that our modern sensibilities to the other faiths are clearly not passed down from aeons ago. I’m hoping that my simplifications will be tested as we learn about the history of Jews in Spain.

As an example:

Reading through old primary and secondary source materials from my undergraduate years at NYU, I stumbled on a collection of charters highlighted in Bob Chazan’s (chair of the department at NYU) book Church, State and Jew in the Middle Ages. Among the charters is one from King James I of Aragon, dated 1239. The introduction to the text states,

During the Thirteenth century, the Christian drive in Spain proceeded farther southward, bring new Jewish communities into the orbit of Christendom. After the conquest of Valencia, a charter was granted to the Jews of the area, extending to them physical protection and the legal status held by the Jews of Saragossa. A number of specific issues are singled out for special consideration. Jewish courts are firmly supported; the old principle of mixed testimony is reaffirmed; Jewish oaths are to be taken on the TORAH; cases are to be tried in the defendant’s court. Particularly interesting is the stipulation that Jews must not be held under arrest or forced to appear in court on their Sabbath.

It’s important to recognize that our modern understanding of anti-semitism, of other peoples, did not exist even a generation ago. The regulations outlined above seem “accepting” given the context of space and time (much more accepting that the edicts of the Visigoth king Recceswinth, who outlawed Kashrut, weddings, circumcisions, and the celebration of Passover back in 654). With that caveat, I’m hoping to learn a tremendous amount from our two guides. Professors Stephen Berk and Eliezer Papo. I’ve also been reading up on the earliest settling of Spain thanks to this online gem (with maps and even biblical references to Spain).

See you next week in Barcelona!



Our city, Our Jacksonville

The following ran as the Lead letter to the Florida Times Union. Tuesday, February 23, 2016.

A word of explanation (since the letter had to be trimmed to 350 words):

In supporting the expansion of our HRO, it goes without saying that I support the LGBTQ community. One need only to speak with members of the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized or discriminated against to see that this is a real issue. Police reports and court cases only tell part of a much grimmer tale. The goal of writing this letter is to create a conversation about moving beyond sustainability and about getting Jacksonville to thrive. It is about the symbolism of exclusion in an area of the country shrouded in racial and economic divide. If we want a “bold” city, we need bold and bright. We need them to want to move here, and return here. I welcome your thoughts!

Expanding Human Rights Ordinance viewed as key to city’s future

Last week, I ran back from a city council meeting and rally to find the welcomed site of my forward thinking congregation, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, collaborating and visioning with lay-leader and senior staff during our monthly board meeting. During this process of strategic planning, the congregation’s leadership is undergoing a conversation on what our synagogue will look like in 5, 10 and 20 years.Will newly minted plaques honoring bold leadership be filled or left empty?  Will congregants find meaning in our worship services? Will people even fill the pews?

Throughout this exercise, I kept thinking to myself, “Will Jacksonville itself be a place that enables our congregation to thrive (and not just survive)?” Will movers and shakers, innovators and future collegians, want to come to a backwards Jacksonville when they can choose a forward thinking Charlotte or Nashville? Will housing, businesses, and restaurants aimed to revitalize our neighborhoods, exist in in a community that vilifies citizens for wanting the basic human necessities of food, shelter and self-worth? Would our Jacksonville born and raised want to stay in such an environment. The answer is NO.

The truth of the matter is that my place of employment, my house of worship, a house established over 100 years ago, would not be the thriving congregation I hope it to be in 20 years, if the Human Rights Ordinance is NOT expanded to include all of the citizens of Jacksonville. It is a human dignity issue. It is symbolic of who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be viewed by the world. I am disgusted when fellow clergy use pulpit power to teach intolerance and spread hate of fellow human beings. Read the Human Rights Ordinance. Study its exemptions. Read the bible. Study all of its complexities.        

March 7 will mark the 44th anniversary of East Lansing, MI passing the first non-discrimination ordinance to protect sexual orientation. Forty Four years. Over 200 cities have protections for all. Let us not be left behind for generations to come. I hope my children can grow up with a sense of pride for our city. I hope they will love living here BECAUSE it is Jacksonville,  not in spite of it.

Sacred Conversations


Sunrise in Charleston, 6:13AM

Hope pierces through the darkness. I arrived in historic downtown Charleston a half hour earlier, thinking I’d have time to catch the sunrise along the colorful Rainbow Row. Little did I know we’d create rainbows of our own later in the day. By the time I arrived, hundreds had assembled, from as early as 4:00AM, to join together as a community mourned its Reverend, Clementa Pinckney. Word had spread that only a thousand or so members of the general public would be allowed in to TD Arena (capacity of 5,400). Mother Emanuel AME congregants, AME clergy from around the county, dignitaries on the state and national level, would fill the remaining seats. I quickly found a spot in line to begin what was to be a five hour wait to enter the arena.

Who shows up before the crack of dawn? These weren’t people who wanted to catch a glimpse of President Obama, or the Reverends Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. The people who assembled came to mourn. They came dressed to go to church- to ask God for guidance, to ask their spiritual leaders for answers.

My day-trip to Charleston was as spontaneous as it gets for me. I’m not an impulse shopper or a last minute vacationer. But last week I began to wonder how I as a clergy person could carry out a sacred task of nichum aveilim, of comforting the mourners. How could i delve deeper than a few moments of self-reflection. I debated telling my family that our Fathers Day plans had changed, that it was more important for me to go bring hope and support to those who were now fatherless. In the end, with an opening in my schedule and the confluence of it being the day of Reverend Senator Pinckney’s funeral, I made the decision to make the four hour drive to Charleston. To be there. To be in the moment. To listen. I didn’t have answers other than the answer of the call to be there for one another in the most troubling of times. I reached out to clergy in Charleston and clergy from our own ICARE congregations- they appreciated my willingness to make the journey and to represent the Jewish faith and our coalition in showing solidarity. Was I invited? No. In a world where we often “pray by proxy,” being a morning drive away equaled an opportunity to pray together, to build relationships and to create a lasting memory.

Waiting in line for 5+ hours became the day’s greatest gift. Individuals came in their Sunday best- dresses, suits. People wore robes and sashes to represent their church affiliation. I wore a suit (until I convinced a gentleman in front of me that if he took his jacket off I’d do the same). I wore a kippah, as I do everyday. In Jacksonville, wearing my kippah by-and-large is a way for me to express my Judaism publicly. It is also an identifier- “there’s the Cantor” if someone had to double take my attire, new hairstyle or facial hair. The kippah is woven into my public and spiritual persona.

I waited in line three hours before someone asked me why I was there in Charleston that morning. This was aided by the fact that I said I was from Jacksonville, Florida, but more significantly by the fact that I wore a kippah as a member of the Jewish faith. The first person to ask me that question was a news reporter. The second person to ask me that question was a news reporter. The third and fourth persons to ask me that question were news reporters. Why would a Jewish clergy-person wait in line for hours to attend an AME funeral service for a pastor he never met, in a city he does not call his own?

I was glad to have those questions asked because it offered an opportunity to express my voice as a representative of my community and faith. But I was also glad that for the majority of my time in Charleston, I was just another person in line waiting to pay tribute to a remarkable man and to show my solidarity by my presence.

Those first three hours of standing in line were the most meaningful for me. You don’t wait in line for hours with a group of strangers without striking up conversation. Eventually, the talk shifted from the weather and the parking to something deeper. I mentioned that the last time I waited in line like this was for American Idol auditions a dozen years ago. You get to know your cluster of the line because you inherently share a common goal and interest. When the conversations shifted, I didn’t have to say “As a Jew” or “As a White American”- those were implied by my outward appearance. But my responses, my demeanor, and my sensitivity to the moment, impressed on those around me that I as a Jew, as a clergy-person, as a white american, cared deeply about the issue of racial discrimination, of fighting for rights for all.

I mentioned to the gentleman next to me that I spent the night at Quality Inn in what he described as the “booming metropolis” of Hardeeville, SC, population 4,291. He was from Harksville, NC, population 106. Next to us was the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher who brought her daughter and mother to pay tribute to Reverend Pinckney. She mentioned her baptism having taken place a few miles from where we stood, creating what was the start of a number of “sacred conversations.” We talked about the power of water across faiths, how the full immersion in water is a metaphor for weaving God into our every being. There was Darrell, the diabetic (you learn that when you wait in the sun without food or drink for a few hours), who was also not a member of the AME church, but who grew up in Jasper County not far from where Reverend Pinckney had his roots. We talked about growing up in South Carolina- how it’s changed, how it must continue to change. He spoke of his love for Charleston- the city, its culture, its people.

As the sun began to pound the city street, volunteers began passing out waters. Umbrellas opened to offer shade to those who needed. Love filled the line. Dozens of reporters converged on us, hoping to poke and prod with pointed questions of why we were there? What were our thoughts and emotions about the past week?

News reporters are smart. They are calculated. I woman in front me wore a gorgeous yellow dress (pictured below).

imageShe was made for the camera. The reporters agreed. I was a well-dressed, not-yet-sweaty Jewish guy. It made for a good story. When they found out I was clergy from Jacksonville, Florida, it made for an even more compelling one. I mentioned my affiliation with the Jacksonville Jewish Center, with ICARE. I mentioned how I felt compelled to not only come to pay tribute to a great man, but to show my support for a community torn by tragedy, broken by the racial hatred of one man; whose hatred was fostered by so many others. I spoke of Reverend Pinckney’s openness to and support of the LGBT community (he was quoted as having said,  ‘loving God is never separate from loving your brothers and sisters.’) I stated how we in Jacksonville still fight for a comprehensive Human Rights Ordinance; how I greatly admire how he guided his flock on and off the pulpit.

When the MSNBC correspondent asked how I answer those who ask “Where is God in a moment like this?” I responded humbly that we all have different perceptions of the divine. We live in a broken world. To me, that means that God isn’t perfect. At the same time, however, we are all created in the image of God. It is our responsibility to repair this world as much as we can. When it’s been asked, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” theologians like Martin Buber (in Glimpse of God) responded by saying that God hid his face, as in the story of Esther. Buber was right in one way- God looked away. As a collective created in his image, we all looked away. So when tragedy strikes, we must never look away again. We must never hide our faces. For injustice and intolerance are never polite enough to hide their cruel faces from our world.


For a short while, the line clumped together as the crowds awaited entry into the TD Arena.


Voices rose up behind us. I thought the joyful sounds were rising to counteract any protestors that may have found their way into the crowd. I looked down at my phone- the Supreme Court had just announced its decision to making same-sex marriage a right across the land. The celebration outside would soon be mirrored by the celebration of a man who championed rights for all.

A few moments later, as we were about to make our way through the security checkpoint, I felt a friendly tug on my shoulders. For a half-second, I thought “I don’t know anyone here- who is tugging my shoulders?” It was Darrell. We gave a “bro hug”- one signifying we hadn’t seen each other in quite some time. Being separated for 20 minutes after standing together for 5 hours can do that to you. And so with an embrace of a stranger, the embrace of a man I met on a sunny morning on Meeting Street, Charleston S.C,

I entered the make shift sanctuary to remember a man I never met.

      image image image

Funeral: “Handle our grief while holding on to faith”

After an hour of music brought to us by a chorus of combined choirs (I did surprise a few people when I began singing along to the Choir’s rendition of Total Praise, a JTS choir favorite thanks to Cantor Debbie Bletstein), the service began with the words from Psalm 118: “Zeh Hayom Asah Adonai , Nagila V’nism’cha Vo” This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice in it.  Having only attended a handful of non-Jewish funerals, this was an experience filled with rowdy celebratory cheering. This was a celebration of life. For roughly five hours, God was praised, Reverend Pinckney was praised, and a community rejoiced in a life well lived. As the VIPs sat below us, I found great meaning in sitting next to a retired cop originally from Chicago, an associate Imam originally from India, and a reverend born and raised in Charleston. I was the rabbi (I didn’t go into the “kh” of Hazzan). We celebrated and mourned together. We weren’t VIPs, but we represented the thousands who waited outside who did not get in- the thousands who mourned and celebrated a great man and a great city.

Towards the end of the funeral, Bishop John Richard Bryant, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church from Baltimore, referenced Psalm 118 again when he stated, “Historically, we are the stones that the builders rejected…but we keep rising.” A day of celebration- knowing of the SCOTUS decision, I took this quote to heart- that for too long we have limited minorities in this country. We have discriminated based upon gender, race and sexual orientation. Generations believed that these groups were the stones that the builders rejected. On Friday, emboldened by the work on the Supreme Court and the words of our President, we took a giant step towards building a sanctuary of hope and healing, of equality and understanding. A sanctuary in time and space solidified by and for all humanity.

My decision to attend Reverend Pinckney’s funeral was not influenced by the anticipated presence of our President, but it was forever shaped by his words and his song.


After the Lord your God you shall walk

            Deuteronomy 13:5

The great sage Maimonides broadens the Talmudic view of this verse as an exclusive reference to the practice of lovingkindness. In his mind, “walk in his ways” refers to both the performance of acts of lovingkindness and the cultivation of moral dispositions, towards the development of a greater social harmony. As one eulogizer put it, Reverend Pinckney “walked the talk.” And so must we do the same. As President Obama mentioned that for too long we ignored these “uncomfortable truths.” We can no longer barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions.

Running to my car (Shabbat started at 8:11PM), I came across a group of protestors wearing t-shirts that read  ‘get with it’ on the back, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” on the front. Seeing my kippah, it gave them the false assumption that I as a religious person would somehow nod my head in approval. I reassured them that this was not the case- God created all of us in his/her image. We are all God’s creatures and we all have the right to live and love in peace. I normally do not engage with people who have hate in their hearts, but having a morning to think and process, I could see no way in which I could not speak up.

Final Thoughts 

Having visited Charleston a few times as a tourist, I never really got to see the grandeur of its people. Their love shown brightly during these troubled times. It reminded me of the love and support New Yorkers gave one another following the tragic events of 9/11. An hour after the second plane hit, I was racing to the closest hospital, Beth Israel, to give blood to those who were in need.  The line stretched around city blocks. Eventually, we were told that they had as much as they could take. The staff said “come back next week, the week after. That’s when we need you.” Whenever tragedy strikes, the goodness and love of this great nation shine through. The goal is to keep that brightness so it does not whither over time. I never went back to give blood- days, weeks, years later. It’s time that we continue to fight for rights for all. Fight hate. Fight injustice. These demons never take a vacation. Our goal is to fight with every fiber of our beings. Each and every day. When the news reporters leave, when the story is elsewhere, we must continue to write the story of love and fellowship on the streets in which we live, in the places we know well and in the discomforting unknown spaces. Love comes from an ever-beating heart that needs us to supply blood. Not just today, each and every day.

*You’ll notice a lack of high quality photographs. While cameras were allowed, I felt that hiding myself behind a lens (which I often do) would limit the scope in which I could interact and converse with the masses as a person of faith and a person of sincerity.