NEWPORT, R.I. — Five hundred years after the Jews were deported from Spain on the same tide that carried Columbus to the New World, America's oldest synagogue has survived to hear a king and president welcome them back to the Iberian Peninsula.
The president, Mario Soares of Portugal, came in person.
"He sat right here in George Washington's chair and publicly apologized to Jews everywhere, asking forgiveness for the suffering and pain his country had inflicted," said the Rabbi Chaim Shapiro, recalling that emotional day three years ago in Newport's Touro Synagogue.
"He admitted the expulsion of the Jews was the greatest mistake Spain and Portugal ever made. They deprived themselves of leaders in the fields of medicine, science, philosophy, administration, finance and lost the intellectual balance needed to offset the religious fanaticism of the time. After that, Spain and Portugal went into decline."
Then on March 31 of this year, the 500th anniversary of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's expulsion order, the Touro congregation received with joy and tears the news that King Juan Carlos of Spain, wearing a yarmulke, had prayed with President Chaim Herzog of Israel in Beth Yaakov, Madrid's only synagogue, in a gesture of reconciliation.
"The king's gesture," Shapiro told the congregation, "does more than confer legitimacy on the small Jewish community now living in Spain, some of whom were smuggled in during the Holocaust. It pays homage to Sephardic communities scattered around the world, who like ours have never forgotten their Spanish roots."
Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain. In Jewish tradition it is associated with the biblical land of Sepharad, mentioned in the book of Obadiah, where Jewish wanderers settled after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed King Solomon's temple, instituting the First Diaspora.
Jews had lived in Spain for more than 1,500 years when the royal order was issued "that all Jewish men and women of all ages leave our kingdoms by the end of July, with their sons and daughters, servants and relatives who are Jews . . . with the warning that any who are found here or return will incur the death penalty."
Unfavorable winds and tides delayed the expulsion deadline, so that on Friday, Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus had to set sail from the small port of Palos because the harbors at Seville and Cadiz were jammed with ships taking away the last of this human cargo. Some boarded ships sent by the sultan of the Ottoman Empire who thought the Spanish king and queen were out of their minds to reject such a talent pool. Even the maps and navigation charts Columbus took with him were prepared by Jewish astronomers and mathematicians.
Many families took their house keys with them, hoping someday to return. All took with them Ladino, a sort of Spanish Yiddish, a strange medieval language rich in prayer, poetry, song and story, that is read right to left like Hebrew.
Shapiro told his congregation that several of his rabbinical colleagues felt the anniversary was a time for mourning and wondered if participating in Spain's Columbus quincentennial "wasn't tantamount to accepting a flagrant bribe in order to encourage Jewish tourism and avoid any embarrassing protests that might mar the Barcelona Olympics and other events taking place in Spain this year?"
He, however, preferred "to accept Spain's hand of friendship outstretched in a symbolic act of repentance and at the same time to celebrate the survival of Sephardic communities over the most difficult obstacles imaginable."
With a running commentary, the rabbi led the way into America's oldest synagogue, now a national landmark. In a large glass case to the left of the altar, Shapiro proudly pointed to a 500-year-old Torah, the scroll containing the first five books of the Bible. "This was written on deerskin parchment in Spain just before the congregation was told to convert to Catholicism or get going."
The "president's pew," where Soares sat, was twice occupied by Washington: first when he came to Newport to plan the Yorktown campaign with Adm. Jean Rochambeau, then later as president.
The general felt a genuine affinity with the community. Sephardic Jews like Lion Moses, Isaac Franks and Haym Salomon helped finance the American Revolution. A Col. David Franks was Washington's liaison officer to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Then there was the fabled midnight ride to Haym Salomon. With Washington's unpaid troops threatening mutiny, a messenger on horseback arrived at the Philadelphia synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1779. Salomon immediately left the service and raised $400,000 to meet the payroll.
Framed on the back wall is a letter Washington wrote to the congregation assuring them that the new "government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requiring only that they who live under its protection shall demean themselves as good citizens."