Spain reaches out to American Jewish tourists

Unless you can read artistically distorted Hebrew, you might not realize that the logo of a program by Spain’s tourism board spells out the four letters of “Sepharad,” the Hebrew word for Spain. And unless you know European geography, you might not realize that the distorted Hebrew letters represent the outline — the national borders — of Spain.

On June 11, this Hebrew logo was on display as Spanish tourism officials — and city mayors — met with Southern California tour operators and travel writers to present a wide-ranging effort by the Spanish government to urge American Jews to visit Spanish sites important in Jewish history.

Called Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters, Routes of Sepharad (in Spanish: Red de Juderías de España, Caminos de Sefarad), this concerted push includes 24 Spanish cities that have restored and highlighted medieval areas that — more than 500 years ago — were home to thriving Jewish communities that produced Moses Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Benjamin of Tudela, among other luminaries. Spanish officials hope these renovated Jewish quarters will become must-visit destinations for American Jewish tourists.

Officials made their pitch at the stately Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, where the sanctuary design, décor and picturesque patio are reminiscent of classical Spain and where some prayers are still recited in Ladino, the medieval Iberian language Jewish exiles took with them to various lands after 1492, when they were expelled from Spain.

When asked about the expulsion, Ferran Bel Accensi, president of the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters and mayor of Tortosa, told The Journal, “What happened 500 years ago should never have happened, of course. We recognize that. At the same time, we realize that the descendants of those Jews who were forced to leave retain a love and esteem for Spain. What happened in 1492 is part of our history, and we don’t want to ignore it. We talk about it when we are at those sites. While acknowledging the past, the 24 cities involved in this program have embraced the positive aspects of those cities’ Jewish heritage, and they celebrate our shared history, art, gastronomy and culture.”

Assumpció Hosta Rebés, secretary-general of the Network of Jewish Quarters, pointed out that an excursion into the history of Jewish life in Spain can be divided up in various ways: by regions of the country or by cultural focus.

Rebés added that the network is guided by the RASGO program (an acronym representing Restaurants, Accommodations, Signposting, Guides, and Cultural Offerings), which ensures the availability of kosher food, good hotels and knowledgeable guides at all the historical sites, as well as good street signs and a variety of Jewish cultural events, such as music, art and literature.

“This program focuses on the Jewish community and emphasizes the Jewish roots they can find in Spain,” Rebés said. “We are trying to connect with American Jews, to let them know that Spain is an important part of their heritage. We want visitors to the Jewish quarters to come not just once, but again and again.”