Local News

Have Sephardic roots? They could get you ‘home’ to Spain

Joel Benoliel

By Barbara Winkelman, Special to The Jewish Sound

Part two in a series about a new law that may allow Sephardic Jews to return “home” to Spain.

Seattle’s Sephardic population has expanded exponentially since Vivian Kahn Blum’s grandparents, Behor and Behora Chiprut, arrived in 1909, yet it is too small to sustain itself. This is partly because of the community’s diaspora and partly because of intermarriage that has diluted Sephardic traditions.

Maimon and Benoliel
Al Maimon, left, and Joel Benoliel stand next to a statue erected in the memory of Maimonides in the courtyard of the Jewish museum in the Juderia of Cordoba, Spain. The Juderia was the Jewish quarter centuries before the expulsion.

Efforts to preserve the Sephardic culture are underway.

The Seattle Sephardic Network was founded recently by Doreen and Joseph Alhadeff, Joel Benoliel, and Al Maimon. Its purpose is to keep the Sephardic tradition alive. They are ironing out the details so they can apply for nonprofit status.

The organization’s creation was spurred by Spain’s re-establishment of a historical connection with the Sephardim. In April, Spain is expected to pass a law granting dual citizenship to those with a Jewish ancestor living in Spain in 1492 — when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued an edict expelling the Jews from Spain or forcing them to convert to Catholicism. The law purports to correct this “historic mistake.”

To gain citizenship, you must prove your connection to Jewish Spain in 1492.

That’s a tall order.

Factors of proof under the proposed law have been kicking around the web since 2013, when Spain first announced its intention to pass this law.

One of the factors is an applicant’s family name. Listings of Sephardic surnames have been disseminated through various media channels. Some sources say these names alone are prima facie evidence of Sephardic roots; Doreen Alhadeff, currently in Madrid, believes that’s likely not the case.

“There are many lists,” she said. “So far, nothing…states that surname will suffice.”

Benoliel read a draft of the bill a few months ago.

“It had a list of cumulative factors which would be used to determine eligibility for citizenship. No single factor would be dispositive, and all factors would be weighed together,” he said. “The primary document would be a certificate issued by a rabbi in the applicant’s community attesting to his or her Sephardic heritage…. I heard that in anticipation of this, some rabbis in South America were already issuing certificates to their congregants.”

Similar documents could be signed by leaders of local Jewish communities or by the General Secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, located in Madrid.

If you’re hoping to make use of this law of return, but don’t know where to start, don’t despair if you’re not a member of a Sephardic synagogue or community. Some sleuthing will put a little spice in your life!

First, try to get your hands on family documents that show historical connections to Spain.

“Evidence that the family used Ladino [Hebrew-Spanish] or Haketia [Hebrew-Spanish-Arabic] languages, including birth certificates or ketubot [marriage licenses] stating that the ceremony was done under the rules and traditions of Castile” may work, Benoliel said. “Many Sephardim after the expulsion continued to reference Spanish traditional practice in written documents by saying that the marriage, for example, was conducted under the laws and traditions of Castile, as evidenced by historical documents from the diaspora that contain such language.”

There could be circumstantial evidence as well. “An applicant might also show that they focused on studies of Spanish history and culture,” suggested Benoliel, “or that they conducted charitable activities on behalf of Spanish institutions which are not occasional or sporadic.”

Doreen Alhadeff shared news of the bill’s latest iteration that will likely deter people from applying:

“At first it appears that you will need to be here in Spain to apply and hire a Spanish notary,” she said. “They [the Spanish government] have no idea how many people will apply and the impact this law might have on embassies if they were to handle [the applications].”

As Luis Fernando Esteban, Honorary Consul to Washington and Oregon, attests, it is also unclear whether the law will mandate a civics test similar to the one required by the United States for citizenship.

Benoliel notes that the bill applies to anyone who is a descendant of a Spanish Jew in 1492.

“One factor that has not gotten a lot of attention is that the applicant need not be a practicing Jew,” he said. “In fact, many Catholics are descended from Conversos or Crypto-Jews, and are therefore equally eligible as am I, so long as their ancestors were Spanish Jews.”

Some think the Sephardic citizenship bill is a public relations stunt or ploy for more money, or that Spain’s penitence is misdirected; they should be fighting anti-Semitism across Europe by supporting Israel in the international arena.

Benoliel said he understands that there is never enough that any one country is doing for Israel, but he alludes to two institutions that Spain funds: A well-regarded Jewish school in Madrid and Centro Sefarad Israel, an organization that serves as a bridge between Spain and the Jewish world, more specifically Sephardic Jews. Centro Sefarad sponsors cultural events, classes, and art expositions in their space. It is holding Erensya III, an international conference of Sephardic Jews in Avila on April 27. Many people watching how this bill unfolds predict the passage of the citizenship law will be announced before then.

Last fall, all four co-founders of the Seattle Sephardic Network traveled to Spain. Benoliel described a private dinner with “key government officials,” where they spoke about the government’s intent with the citizenship law.

They learned of the Historical Memory Law, passed in 2007, which “offers citizenship to descendants of those exiled as a result of the Spanish Civil War. That included tens of thousands of people now living in Cuba.”

“There was no financial motivation behind that law and it gained little public attention,” Benoliel said. “But for the Spanish it was part of an effort to come to terms with their past, and offer reconciliation where appropriate. They see the offer of citizenship to Sephardim in the same light.”