Caring for brides: The Dotar Society of Amsterdam

This society had very strict rules and procedures.

DRAWING OF the Lots in 1965. (photo credit: DOTAR BOARD)
DRAWING OF the Lots in 1965.
(photo credit: DOTAR BOARD)
The newly formed Protestant Holland that declared its independence (de facto as of 1581) from Spain did not display the anti-Jewish biases of either the church or the Inquisition.
Iberian conversos seeking a place of refuge and hoping to build new lives for themselves, whether economically, socially or religiously, were especially attracted to the burgeoning city of Amsterdam. The newcomers began to organize themselves at the end of the 16th century and would eventually create an impressive Portuguese Jewish community.
Because converso life in Iberia had been so fraught with uncertainty and danger, many of those who managed to emigrate (or escape) often found themselves in dire circumstances. One of the concerns of the Amsterdam community was caring for the poor – particularly for young women who would not be able to marry without the necessary dowry.
As a result, the Santa Companhia de Dotar Orphas e Donzellas (the Holy Company of Orphan and Young Daughters’ Dowries) was formed in 1615, following the precedent of the community of Venice just two years earlier. This society, the Dotar, recently celebrated 400 years since its inception; the event, along with a history of this institution, has been beautifully described by Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld in the booklet “Dowries and Dotar: An Unbroken Chain of 400 Years.”
This society had very strict rules and procedures. Announcements were sent out annually; petitions had to be submitted by the first of the month of Adar II. At times, this society went beyond local confines and considered candidates from converso families located in France, Flanders, England, Germany or on the islands of Curacao, Suriname or Jamaica. Some, who had not yet been able to openly observe Judaism, even registered with Catholic names. Those fleeing the Inquisition were viewed as serious candidates.
However, if and when the society was inundated with requests, it tended to localize its choices. Nevertheless, names can be found on these lists that include Sephardi candidates from Mediterranean Europe as well as the Ottoman Empire.
Each candidate’s background was thoroughly examined; letters of recommendation were required. The age, virtue, Jewishness and general reputation of each girl was considered. The youngest age for an applicant was originally 14, but later increased to 16. These young ladies were being encouraged to enter the Jewish world and were required to select Jewish grooms; the society saw itself as protecting their honor by granting dowries.
The petitions themselves provide an entrée into the life of the less fortunate, for they include information about families, their travails, their itineraries and survival tactics.
The selection process includes a lottery ceremony to determine who would receive a dowry and wedding gift. This ceremony takes place annually on Shushan Purim – 15 Adar, the date for Purim inside ancient walled cities such as Jerusalem is one day after all other Jews celebrate the holiday – (or on the following Sunday), and has managed to retain an aura of pomp and circumstance for 400 years. The individuals in the procession include the samass (shamash), the haham (elder) and the society’s board members, who walk into the esnoga (synagogue) carrying silver bowls for the lottery. Each candidate’s name is written on a piece of paper; all pieces are then placed inside the bowls. Traditionally (until the 1950s), a young boy selects the lots, the fortunate brides’ names are announced and the procession promptly marches out of the synagogue.
Purim was chosen as appropriate for this activity in order to commemorate Esther, to perform the mitzva of charity and to recall the casting of lots in the Purim story. A candidate can reapply if her name is not chosen. Each chosen bride needs to find a groom, a process that can take between three and 12 years, but requires rabbinic approval. A groom with a profession is preferable, so that the match will hopefully be successful economically and the community will not have to support the couple.
Today, the age specifications for brides are between 16 and 40 and for male candidates, between 16 and 50. Preference is always shown for those living in Amsterdam or relatives of city residents; as of 1954, only Dutch citizens are considered. Only one parent of the candidate must be of Portuguese descent and a potential member of the Amsterdam Portuguese community, but the bride’s parents need to have been married in an Orthodox ceremony.
The society itself was an extremely elite group requiring a high entry fee for members.
While the original group from 1615 consisted of only 20 men, by 1630, there were over 100 members; by 1683, it had grown to 400. Sometimes less wealthy members sought to enter the society when they realized that it was a worthwhile investment, for it could enable them to help others, especially members of their own family, and membership could be inherited as well. Some philanthropists contribute funds to the Dotar to pay for prayers for the living (misheberah) or for the deceased (escavot).
Today, recipients include Sephardim in Israel who are not necessarily from poor families, although donations are made to support institutions in Amsterdam and Israel such as yeshivot, libraries and hospitals, or for helping Russian immigrants.
This past year, there were 11 recipients of the Dotar, all Dutch. While original resolutions are in Portuguese, more recent ones are in Dutch.
Although the society has made an effort to change with the times, it has managed to preserve an original and effective means of caring for orphans and for the less fortunate. Many a Sephardi bride has been able to find a match thanks to the initiative of the 17th-century Portuguese Dotar society. 
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.