Barcelona Jewish Heritage Escape

Dec 10, 2018

Barcelona is one of Spain’s most lively, fun, and ‘feel good’ cities.

Just ask anyone who has been there – they are likely to highly recommend a visit! Indeed we often like to compare Barcelona and Tel Aviv for their positive vibes, outstanding cuisine and beach offerings. For those of you who have already been on a Jewish Heritage tour to Israel, Spain might well be top of your list for your next Jewish Heritage tour – as we have previously highlighted. Here we focus on Barcelona as a standalone getaway destination …

The Jewish community of Barcelona is fairly small but has a fascinating history. The major landmark for tourists looking for some insight into the community’s history is the ancient synagogue of Barcelona – Sinagoga Major – it is believed to date from as early as the 3rd century although exact dates are unknown. In the 13th Century, like many cities in Europe the Jewish community thrived with members working as Doctors, Scientists, Merchants and Money lenders. In 1263 Barcelona was the site of the famous disputation between the Jewish theologian and Rabbi Nachmanides, and Pablo Christiani. The disputation was presided over by King James I of Aragon and although Nachmanides was declared victor, the outcome caused such a negative feeling against the Jews within the Christian authorities that Nachmanides fled the country. The Jews of Catalonia indeed suffered terrible antisemitism in the Middle Ages and in 1391 the Jews of Barcelona were massacred, well ahead of the later expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. Following this event the Jewish community was virtually non-existent and the building’s origins were forgotten and remained hidden until 1987, when Jaume Riera y Sans began researching the location of the Sinagoga Major. This led to Miguel Jaffa purchasing the building in 1995 and the recovery and restoration of the synagogue began, with it opening to the public in 2002. The synagogue is especially significant as it is believed to be the oldest in all of Spain, and amongst the oldest in Europe. Sinagoga Major is now a small synagogue actively used for special occasions (please ask us if you are thinking of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the city!), and also serving as an excellent museum. Ancient Chanukiah and Torah Scrolls are on display – with expert guides you can head to this small building in the Gothic Quarter of the city to learn about the many artifacts and hear about the wider Jewish history of Barcelona.

Barcelona’s Medieval Jewish community is apparent today through a visit to Montjuic – a fascinating fort well worth visiting to understand how the city was attacked and defended time and again over the centuries. Montjuic means ‘Mountain of the Jews’ in Catalan, and the namesake is the Jewish cemetery of the same location and recently unearthed tombstones are now displayed in the Provincial Archeological Museum.

There are now around 15,000 Jews in Spain mainly in the cities of Barcelona and Madrid, including a thriving Israeli community in Barcelona. In Barcelona regular synagogue services are held in the main Synagogue, The Cominidad Israelita de Barcelona which has Separdi and Ashkenazi services. For those who wish to join a service during their visit to Barcelona, perhaps even followed by a home hospitality meal, we are delighted to organize this for you ahead of time. There is also a Chabad community, and Reform and Progressive Communities as well as kosher restaurants and shops.

So, if you are looking for a European destination with a small but strong Jewish Community, which boasts an interesting history, and a happy vibe, Barcelona should be on your list!

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