Prof. Eric Mendoza could not believe his ears. On Rosh Hashana, he was worshiping in the Old City's Yohanan Ben-Zakkai Synagogue. The liturgy there, though Sephardi, was not what he was used to. A descendant of the famous 18th-century pugilist Daniel Mendoza, he had been a member of the Spanish and Portuguese community in England. His aliya had been successful, but he missed the distinctive prayers and the melodies of his old congregation. Suddenly, he heard a song that he knew well from years ago, but it was not coming from the service in front of him. Puzzled, he followed the music. It led him to another synagogue in the same complex, the Istanbuli synagogue. To his amazement, he saw a packed congregation lustily singing the distinctive hymn "Et Sha'arei Ratzon." Composed by the 12th-century poet Judah Ibn Abbas, it is a centerpiece of the Spanish and Portuguese Rosh Hashana service. Eric Mendoza had come home. The congregation, who by happy coincidence had adopted the name "Sha'arei Ratzon" on its formation a few years before in 1980, welcomed him with open arms. But wanderings and homecomings were nothing new to their forebears. The Spanish and Portuguese communities worldwide owe their existence to what they didn't do in 1492. While most Jews were expelled from Spain that year, pursued by the vengeful Inquisition, many clung to their native land, and continued to practice their religion behind closed doors as best they could. Toward the close of the following century, however, improved economic conditions in Italy, Germany and the newly independent Netherlands prompted many of these secret Jews, mostly merchants, doctors and scholars, to leave Spain for good. Once they were able to live openly as Jews, they flourished rapidly. They set up communities in Amsterdam, Hamburg and elsewhere. They reached England, and fanned out to the Americas. The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in North America, was built in the middle of the 18th century to serve a Spanish and Portuguese community that had existed in the town since 1658. Other historic synagogues built by Spanish and Portuguese congregations include Amsterdam's Portuguese Synagogue (or Esnoga), and London's Bevis Marks. Their presence in this part of the world was almost non-existent, though. The communities were too well integrated into their host countries to be enthusiastic about Zionism. Even after the founding of the state, only a few individuals came over. It was not until 1980 that two rabbis, Harris Guedalia and Martin van den Bergh, realized that there might be enough people to form a congregation in Jerusalem . But where were they to worship? The Sephardi Committee of Jerusalem generously came to the rescue. They owned the historic complex housing the four Sephardi synagogues of the Old City, restored a few years previously after being badly damaged during the Jordanian occupation. One of them, the Istanbuli Synagogue, a magnificent domed structure dating from 1701, lacked a congregation. A match was made. The community has changed over the years. When it started, the gossip was of how top hats and morning coats would become part of the Jerusalem scene: Spanish and Portuguese congregations elsewhere have a very elitist image. Instead these special Sephardim have blended into the landscape very well. They have drawn together immigrants from England, Gibraltar, the United States, Holland, Canada and Surinam, among other countries. Their children have blended in well. Unexpectedly, the congregation found a role encouraging other hidden Jews, or anusim, from all over the world to rediscover their heritage. Many of them, while studying in Jerusalem, found a home in Sha'arei Ratzon. Of course, visitors coming from other Spanish and Portuguese congregations are hosted with pleasure: Sha'arei Ratzon may yet become a focal point for aliya. But the distinctiveness of the service is its real drawing card. No other community blends so well in its prayers the high artistic achievement of Spanish Jewish poetry and melodies so well loved that some communities faithfully reproduce them in their prayer books (see illustration). "We do not know who were the people who composed this music," says Prof. Isaac Benabu, a longtime member and honorary cantor. "However, their rare sensibilities enabled them to capture the proper mood of the prayer for the occasion, be it solemn or joyful. There is nothing quite like it in the Jewish liturgy." And the setting is one of the most beautiful in Jerusalem. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the Sephardi Committee, along with contributions from the congregation, the Istanbuli Synagogue has been well maintained. A new lighting system shows its graceful and spacious interior to good advantage. A 17th-century Italian echal (ark), and an Italian tebah (bima) dating from the 18th century, complete the picture. It is no surprise that many of Sha'arei Ratzon's members are Jews from other traditions, drawn to the community because of the distinctiveness and aesthetic beauty of the service. Nobody has to show his or her family tree at the door. All are welcome. The congregation has already made its mark on the local scene. A special service to commemorate 500 years since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was honored by the presence of then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and other dignitaries. Sha'arei Ratzon has ambitious plans for the future. For now, this small but vibrant congregation worships on festivals and only one Shabbat a month. Most members live over half an hour away from the Old City. While this demands more effort from a Jerusalem synagogue-goer than is usual, nobody has regrets. Least of all longtime member Ezra Gorodesky, who turned up on Rosh Hashana sporting a walking stick and nursing a bandaged hand. "Being here," he informed the congregation, "is the nicest Rosh Hashana present I could have had." Now that the Spanish and Portuguese have come home to the heart of the Jewish world, they are not going to let go easily. For further details about the congregation and its service schedule, please contact the writer at Ralph-Amelan@yahoo.com, or at 563-8340.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share