Aleinu. It is (still) Upon Us
Shalom from The Azores! On my way home from studying in Jerusalem, I met Adam halfway, in the middle of the Atlantic. We enjoyed hiking to waterfalls and kayaking across mountain-top lakes. We were awed by the natural beauty, but our last stop was the most moving of all. I shouldn’t be surprised that these islands, 870 miles from Lisbon, have a Jewish story. A rare remnant of it is “the hidden synagogue” of Ponta Delgada.
Between 1575 and 1619, the Portuguese Inquisition accused 120 Azoreans of Jewish practice. A 38-year-old Jewish doctor, António Borges, was burned at stake, a rare punishment. Open and organized Jewish life did not return to the Islands until 1819, two years before the Portuguese Inquisition officially ended. Abraão Bensaude was the benefactor who founds Sahar Hassamain (Sha’ar HaShamayim) and its adjoining mikveh in 1836. His generosity and leadership allowed the Azorean Jewish community to swell to its peak of one hundred families by the mid-1800’s. (Among them was the Sabat Family, which is my own middle name, in memory of my paternal grandmother’s family from Prague.) But a study conducted in 2004 by Luísa Mota Viera revealed that remarkably, 13.4% of the DNA of Azoreans is Jewish, compared to 6.8% of mainland Portuguese, so it is reasonable to believe that many “New Christians” came to the Azores.
The synagogue is unrecognizable from the street. The entrance looks like all the other doors on the crowded narrow street of attached row houses. The mikvah and its cistern for collecting rainwater is at the back of the house. Up the stairs and through an unadorned door, a small sanctuary is revealed. Were they still so frightened that they felt they needed to hide from their neighbours?
The yellow stripe marks the entrance to the synagogue
The hidden sanctuary
In 2015, the synagogue was restored and rededicated, with funding from the Jewish communities of Lisbon and Massachusetts. Its museum displays old Hebrew teaching tools for children, a chair for Elijah to welcome every eight-day old baby boy born into the community, the Mohel’s instruments – all signs of their commitment to Jewish continuity.
Many of the 67 seats in the roped-off sanctuary, were labeled with the names of the Jews who sat in them. Each seat lifted to reveal a small tallit and a siddur, presumably so the people would not have to carry these identifying objects in the streets nor risk keeping them in their own homes.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the blue ceiling, nearly the same shade as the dome above our own Holy Blossom bimah. But the most haunting of all the details, frozen in time, was the small sign on the wall to aid the congregation in joint prayer. Because many different prayerbooks were used, the page numbers were not posted, but rather the name of the prayer being led by the service leader. The little sign still reads: “Barech Aleinu,” “Pray the Aleinu,” “Pray: It is Upon Us.”
Yes, it is.
A Call to Action
I will have more to share with you about what I learned at the Hartman Institute, about what I heard and saw at the three demonstrations I attended in Jerusalem, but for now let me call attention to where we sit in Jewish time.
Two of three demonstrations in less than two weeks. Here with Yair Lootstein, President of Israel’s Reform Movement (IMPJ), with Roberta Franco Glick from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and with my parents, Rabbi Don and Greta Lee Splansky, too!
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat of Vision. It is the Shabbat which comes immediately before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem’s First and Second Temples.
For twenty-eight straight weeks in twenty-eight Israeli cities, demonstrations are held in the name of protecting Israel’s democracy. During these days leading up to Tisha B’Av, when temperatures are high, and political tensions are even hotter, there is no music at the protests, only a sea of flags. The speeches now call for protection from the fall of “The Third Temple.”
The State of Israel is the source of our strength and our hope. I invite you to join me in prayer and study on Tisha B’Av, this coming Thursday. We will reflect on the ancient Rabbinic warnings against threats that come from within.
While only Israeli citizens have a vote, we, Ohavei Yisrael, Lovers of Israel, do have a voice. Our Israeli brothers and sisters are calling on us now to use our voices to reinforce their own.
This fall, we will welcome Orly Erez-Likhovski, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). I urge you to study the extraordinary work of the team of lawyers who make up this advocacy arm of our Reform Movement in Israel. https://www.irac.org If you are ready to raise up your voice for an Israel that reflects your values, if you are ready to wave your flag in solidarity with the millions of demonstrators, click “Canada” and consider composing a letter, using the tools they provide or one of your own design. https://www.drove.com/campaign/63d11d3c9d4e7171c5a619d5
It is… Aleinu. It is always, Upon All of Us, to create the Jewish future we seek.
Shabbat Shalom. Shalom al Yisrael. May peace descend on the People Israel, on the State of Israel, upon the Land of Israel.