Mission uncovers Sephardic roots from Spain to Israel

If talk of Spain conjures images of bullfights and sangria, think again.

To participants going on the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Young Leadership Mission to Spain and Israel, a huge part of Spain's heritage is the history of the Jews.

This spring, from March 9 to 20, the roots of Sephardic Jewry will be uncovered by a group of young Bay Area Jewish community leaders traveling on Chazak 3, a nationally sponsored United Jewish Appeal mission that traces the footsteps of persecuted Sephardic Jews, who fled Spain for Safed, Israel more than 500 years ago.

According to local mission recruitment co-chairs Steve Kaufman and Karyn DiGiorgio, the trip will provide "centuries of experience packed into 11 incredible days."

In Spain, the group will be accompanied by scholar-in-residence Dr. Benjamin Gampel, a renowned authority on Spanish Jewry. The itinerary there will focus on Spain's Jewish history, believed to have begun after the destruction of the First Temple.

It will include such highlights as a visit to the sight of the executed Marranos in Madrid's Plaza Major, a stroll through Granada's fabled Jewish ghetto and a tour of the legendary Alhambra Castle.

Historians estimate that the first Spanish Israelite colony was established in 586 BCE. Then, with the end of the Muslim domination at the close of the 14th century, anti-Jewish propaganda and persecutions took hold. In 1391 a wave of massacres swept through the southern part of the country and in 1492 the Inquisition brought about the wholesale expulsion of all Jews from Spain.

Jews did not return to Spain until the 20th century. Today, thanks to the arrival of Moroccan Jews and Jews from South America, Spanish Jewish life is experiencing a new revival.

The Chazak (Hebrew for "strength") Spain-Israel trip is expected to attract some 250 participants from throughout the county and is open to singles and couples, ages 25 to 45. The third in a series of federation young leadership missions that conclude in Israel after starting out another country, Chazak 3 is expected to sell out quickly.

Kaufman reported that both Chazak 1, which toured the former Soviet Union, and Chazak 2, which traveled to Morocco, were sold out missions.

Upon departing from Spain and arriving in Israel, Chazak 3 participants will begin an exploration of the Spain-Israel connection by walking through Safed's twisting streets, where early Sephardic Jews immersed themselves in study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).

Then, fast-forwarding to modern-day Israel, the group will meet with scholars and Knesset members to explore political, economic and security issues, culminating in a jeep ride into the Golan to review Israel's security concerns there.

DiGiorgio recalled her own previous experience as a participant on Chazak 2, which retraced the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's historic visit to Morocco following the signing of the peace accord in Washington.

"On that trip we had the opportunity to meet with Rabin and gain an in-depth understanding of the peace process. This year we expect to have a briefing with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu," she said.

The group will pay homage at Rabin's grave in the Mount Herzl cemetery and honor Israel's fallen soldiers.

"The history of Israel and the history of Sephardic Jewry are tightly interwoven," said DiGiorgio. "As Jews, whether we are Israeli, Sephardic or Ashkenazic, it is our history. And one that is well worth exploring."

The Chazak 3 Mission costs $2,670 per person, plus a minimum $1,000 donation to the JCF's annual campaign. The cost includes round-trip airfare from San Francisco, deluxe accommodations and most meals. For more information, and an application, call the JCF's young leadership office at (415) 512-6240.