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First Spanish-born rabbi since 1492 expulsion set on reversing history
Haim Casas, 34, had no inkling as a young boy in Cordoba, Spain, that he would one day become a rabbi — especially since his family was Catholic. However, after he started taking an interest in Judaism and Jewish history in his teens, he recognized signs that the pull he felt to the religion might not be purely arbitrary.
As he was growing up, his maternal grandfather would take him every Sunday to visit the old Jewish quarter of the city, and to look at the famous statue of Maimonides there. His mother’s side of the family was historically more secular, intellectual and suspicious of the Catholic hierarchy.
The family always cleaned the house for the weekend, and on Saturdays ate a dish that Casas would later identify as hamin (the Sephardic equivalent of the Ashkenazi cholent, the stew that simmers overnight and is eaten on Shabbat).
Like most of the region’s residents, Casas was raised Catholic. However, historical ties to Judaism are to this day ever-present in Cordoba: During the Golden Age of Jews in Spain, the Andalusian city was the seat of learning and culture. There, Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, and rabbinical scholars thrived under Muslim rule, beginning in 711. Especially the 11th and 12th centuries were an era of great thinkers and leaders, such as Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses Ibn Ezra, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.
But several hundred years later, the situation for Jews in Spain drastically changed after Catholic Spain was unified following the marriage of Isabella de Castilla to Ferdinand de Aragon.
Jews facing the Inquisition were forced to leave, convert or be killed, until finally, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 ordered all Jews to leave Spain, forcing them to flee to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.
Consequently, Cordoban Jewry all but died out, and certainly no rabbi came out of the city for almost a millennium. But Casas, now a rabbinical student, is set to reverse history.
After his 2017 ordination from Leo Baeck College in London, Casas plans on being the first Spanish-born rabbi since the Spanish Expulsion to serve the approximately 45,000 Jews (affiliated and non-affiliated) in Spain today.
Ties to a distant Jewish past?
Cordoba has taken pains to preserve tangible signs of Spain’s past, including ancient mosques and synagogues, and Casas had not been unaware of the Jews’ historical presence in the country.
“Teachers in Cordoba were conscious of diversity in Spanish history. In fact, I had one teacher — she was a nun — who claimed to be descended from Jews,” Casas told The Times of Israel.
‘It’s just a memory, a feeling, a connection you have’
Casas believes that it is likely that he, too, is descended from Conversos (known in Hebrew as anusim: Jews who outwardly converted to Christianity because of the Inquisition, but who continued to secretly practice Judaism), but he couldn’t prove it.
One day, while working at Mémorial de la Shoah, the Paris Holocaust museum, Casas saw a file about a family with the last name “Casas” deported to Auschwitz. He also noticed that his father’s last name, Sanchez-Leyva, could be a derivation of the common Jewish surname Levy. (Casas uses his mother’s family name.)
“It’s just a memory, a feeling, a connection you have. People hid their Judaism for hundreds of years, so you can’t find any documentation to prove you are Jewish,” Casas explained.
Consequently, Casas underwent official conversion to Judaism under the supervision of the beit din of the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ).
A chance meeting with far-reaching repercussions
Casas’s road to conversion and eventually to rabbinical school began with delving into Judaism through self-study and community service. He earned a degree in Spanish business law, but never used it, preferring to start and run a small Jewish museum and cultural center in Cordoba called Casa de Sefarad together with a non-Jewish couple who collected Spanish Jewish artifacts.
Casas worked as Casa de Sefarad’s program director between 2005 and 2012. During the same period, he and some friends opened a Jewish restaurant, Casa Mazal, in a house in the old Jewish quarter of the the city.
The local university and cultural exchange programs would call him up asking him to host visiting Jewish students and other tourists.
“I started organizing holiday events and Jewish life in Cordoba, so I had to study and learn to do that,” Casas reflected on the autodidactic nature of his initial Jewish education.
Currently, Moroccan-born Orthodox rabbis lead most Spanish Jewish congregations, and foreign rabbis sometimes visit the country’s liberal congregations, which were founded by South American immigrants of Ashkenazi background.
But eventually, after meeting Jews all around Andalusia, Casas also co-founded a small, independent congregation in Cordoba called Beit Rambam (Hebrew for “Home of Maimonides”). The congregation has since moved to Seville, and now numbers about 50 members.
“I had a crisis living in Cordoba. Here I was in the capital of the Jews in the Golden Age, but that now has almost no Jews. My Jewish education was too basic, it was based on my teaching myself,” Casas recalled.
Enter American Jewish educational entrepreneur Peter Geffen, who showed up just at the right moment. The two met in a synagogue in Marrakesh, Morocco, and met up again in Cordoba at Casa de Sefarad soon after.
“The following year I invited Jaime [as Casas was then known] to join Kivunim [the gap year program Geffen founded that is based in Jerusalem and involves travel to Jewish communities around the world] in Sofia [in Bulgaria] so he could see a truly active Sephardic community. When we sat for lunch that day in Sofia, I felt that this guy was meant to become the first Spanish-born rabbi in 500 years, and I told him so. He was shocked by my idea, to say the least. But obviously, I had hit a nerve,” Geffen told The Times of Israel.
‘I always saw clergy and the establishment as part of the problem, not the solution’
Despite his thirst for Jewish knowledge and community, Casas has never considered becoming a rabbi.
“I always saw clergy and the establishment as part of the problem, not the solution,” Casas said.
“But Peter convinced me that I needed to be a rabbi to change Jewish life in Spain. I knew I wasn’t a real expert. I was just an expert among the ignorant, which was something I didn’t want to be. I came to understand that my becoming a rabbi would be a means to an end, not an end in itself,” he added.
A vision for the future of Jewish life in Spain
Casas thought about attending rabbinical school in the United States, but after he met a rabbi working for the EUPJ who told him about Leo Baeck College, he concluded that studying in Europe would be better preparation for working with European Jews.
As part of his rabbinic training, Casas juggles placements at congregations in three different European countries: Gil congregation in Geneva, Switzerland; Kehilat Kedem in Montpellier, France; and Atid in Barcelona, Spain.
Although Casas does not yet know where his first job as an ordained rabbi will be, he eagerly anticipates fulfilling his dream of serving in the Spanish Jewish community. He will, however, need support (financial and otherwise) for his three-pronged approach for revitalizing Spanish Jewry.
‘I envision educational programs and publications toward recovering Jewish memories’
His initial focus will be on developing liberal and progressive Jewish communities throughout Spain. He also plans to connect Spaniards in general to the Jewish aspects of Spanish history and culture.
“I envision educational programs and publications toward recovering Jewish memories,” Casas said.
Finally, he wants to elevate Sephardic history within Jewish history by bringing students from Israel and around the world to Spain for educational programs similar to those that have Jewish teens going to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and Eastern European Jewish history.
It’s too early to know effect of new law of return for Sephardic Jews
Although obviously aware of a new law offering Spanish citizenship to Jews with Sephardic ancestry, Casas is doubtful that there will be an immediate influx of Jews into the country. There may be 3.5 million Jews around the world with historical ties to Spain, but Casas doubts there are enough “pull factors” to attract huge numbers of Jews to Spain right now.
“As important as the law is, a lot depends on the Spanish economy — even for Jews who may wish to leave South America,” he said.
“Some are applying for sentimental reasons, others because they want a European passport ‘just in case,’ and some want it as a gateway to Schengen,” he added, referring to the area involving 26 European countries that have mutually decided to eliminate passport and immigration controls at their joint borders.
It is simply too soon to know what the ultimate impact of the new law will be on Spanish Jewish demographics.
“For me, the challenge and mission is how to be welcoming to both the Jews already in Spain, as well as those who do come. It’s also about welcoming the huge numbers of people who are not Jewish but who are interested in Judaism,” Casas said.
Avoiding a ‘Sephardic Disneyland’
Casas will be ordained as a Progressive rabbi, but he plans on working in a post-denominational fashion. He believes that an open framework provides the best possibility for growing the community.
“I’m not focused on the terminology. It’s about helping people find a welcoming space,” he noted.
The soon-to-be rabbi envisions incorporating traditional Sephardic liturgy and music, as well as Ladino, into progressive religious practice. He thinks there is also a place for general Spanish influences, like flamenco music.
He is intent on being authentically Sephardic and Spanish, while at the same time liberal and modern, with as much of an eye to the future as to the past.
The last thing Casas wants to do is to create an exploitative “Sephardic Disneyland” that draws curious tourists but ignores the needs of Jews living in Spain today.
“The idea is for Spanish Jewry to preserve its heritage, but at the same time to become again a dynamic, creative force in the Jewish world,” he said.
For his part, Geffen is confident that Casas is the person to realize this vision.
“I think that Haim can become the young 21st century link to the glorious and unparalleled Spanish Jewish past. His own story will stir many more anusim, and the end result will be a new Jewish world arising like a phoenix from the dead,” he said.