Google helps brings lost Jewish Spain to life

Joint project will enable online virtual guided walks to 24 cities once home to vibrant Jewish communities.

ÁVILA. 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ÁVILA. 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MADRID – Google and the Spanish Network of Jewish Quarters (Red de las Juderías) made news in Madrid last week when they unveiled a joint project promoting the once-lost Jewish heritage of 24 Spanish cities, from Ávila to Tudela.
The Pathways of Sefarad (Caminos de Sefarad) project, presented at Centro Sefarad- Israel in Madrid last week, is the icing on the cake of 15 years work by the Network of Jewish Quarters, awakening the long-dormant Jewish history that saturates Spain.
Though until recently all that remained of Sephardi Spain were old street names, these neighborhoods are now alive with museums, guided walks, restored synagogues and rediscovered documents.
The partnership between Google and the Networks is dedicated to providing Internet visits to once-Jewish cities, offering virtual guided walks and history lessons via the Caminos de Sefarad website, which combines Red de las Juderías research and Google technology.
The catalyst for the project was a visit by Google Free Expression manager William Echikson to Segovia.
“I saw signs in Segovia pointing to the synagogue and museum. I didn’t realize Spain had so much Jewish history; I thought it was just Granada and Toledo,” Echikson said during the inauguration at Centro Sefarad-Israel.
“I immediately got in touch with Red de las Juderías and two weeks later Assumpció Hosta Rebés [secretary general of the network] was in Brussels to work on a common project with Google,” he said.
“We have had the best partners,” said Echikson, about Hosta Rebés, webmaster Oscar Adan and their team. “They have used Google’s tools, even better than many Google engineers. They have done an unbelievably great job.”
Google technology has allowed Red de las Juderías to organize content dating back to the third century CE through the use of Google maps and layers.
The website, located at, visits Spanish cities that include Barcelona, Girona, Segovia and Oviedo. With Google’s Street View the visitor can stroll down the alleyways of yesteryear, as well as those of today.
Much documentation available online outlines the lives of medieval Jews, what they bought, what they sold, and whether they were evicted from their homes.
The project has been welcomed by the Spanish government, fitting into the new branding of Spain as a cultural and historical treasure trove, which, with Google’s technical support, will be able to reach a much larger market than heretofore.
It also fits in with the latest trends in Spanish public diplomacy.
José Angel Lopez Jorrin, the Spanish Foreign Ministry official in charge of “branding” for Spain, said at the ceremony that it was “a magnificent contribution” to the brand.
“[It] opens panoramas of knowledge – and we all know knowledge is the cornerstone of tolerance and living together,” he said. “To recover part of Spain, which must be made known. To complete the image of Spain. Not only for Jews. To rehabilitate, or recompose in a way, some sort of historic mistake.”
Hosta Rebés said the group was “very excited” about the joint project. “It combines heritage, tolerance, universality and shared work,” she said. “Spain is a county that, having lived through a dictatorship, has had little respect for those who are different.
We are not used to sharing public spaces. We who live day to day in these [Jewish heritage ] cities understand the need for more information.
We have begun to program conferences, concerts and courses to introduce our varied culture.”
Bárbara Navarro, director of Public Policies and Institutional Affairs of Google Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, praised the partnership and said it would contribute greatly to people’s understanding of “what happened years ago,” to “piquing people’s curiosity” and toward the “democratization of the access to culture” and the renewal of “past connections.”
Luis Casado, chairman of Red de las Juderías and mayor of Tudela, spoke of the added value of rediscovering “our abandoned Jewish heritage and culture.”
“We have taken on the aim of teaching it, of making it a reference point for Spain,” Casado said. “to teach people who their neighbors were.”
He also called the project a “tipping point.”
“Many Sephardim left Spain. Now with hi-tech they can come back, visit their cities, their histories, the personalities of yore,” he explained. “Anyone from anywhere can learn about their roots or simply learn history.”
He added that Google had been “very philanthropic” regarding the project.
“It has allowed us to present our past as we have never before been able to do. We open a window through which Jews can get to know about the recovery of this chapter in history.”
Google’s Echikson told The Jerusalem Post that his paternal grandmother is believed to be a Sephardi from Budapest. The rest of his family immigrated to the US from Latvia and Vienna, one great-grandfather as early as 1893.
“This project will give us a double option,” he said, “both to educate Spanish citizens in that badly treated part of history and to allow us to open windows, open the country to those who have a special interest in getting to their Jewish roots.”
He added that he felt the Caminos de Sefarad website was “a tool against anti- Semitism” and that Spain “needs an educational effort.”