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Rabbi Yosef Benarroch: What Jerusalem Means to Me

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, May 22, 2020

In one word, EVERYTHING. Let me explain. I was born in the city of Tangiers in Spanish Morocco, which makes me a Sephardic Jew. Sephardic Jews trace their ancestry to Spain and were expelled from that country in 1492. Where could thousands of these expellees go? My family went to Morocco. But there were many who made their way to the Ottoman Empire, invited there by Bayezid II the Sultan of Turkey. In fact Bayezid II sent ships to Spain to bring the Jews to his empire. Regarding King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews, Bayezid said to his courtiers, "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" The Jews made invaluable contributions to their new home. The first printing press in Constantinople was established by the Sephardic Jews in 1493. But like every other country that welcomed wandering Jews, the Jews knew it was temporary. Their spirits were never quiet. They knew their home was elsewhere. They longed to return to their home in Israel.

In the year 1527 their prayers were answered. Their dreams became a reality. The Ottoman Empire conquered Israel, resulting in a mass exodus of Jews from Turkey to Israel. These Sephardic Jews settled in Tiberias, Hebron, Safed and in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem they built synagogues, schools, a Rabbinic court, housing complexes, and charity organizations for the poor. With time the community grew, they appointed a Chief Rabbi, and built a hospital. By the early 1800’s the majority of Jerusalem’s citizens were Jewish. By most accounts half of the 24,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem were Sephardic Jews.


The Jews in Jerusalem lived in dire straits. The Old City was cramped within the walls rebuilt by Sultan Suleiman I between 1537 – 1541. Food and sanitation were lacking. Large families lived in one room homes. I was privileged to work in Jerusalem’s Old City from 1999-2017 in the rebuilt Jewish Quarter. My office was located in the Sephardic Courtyard, a widows housing unit that was in use before 1948, when Jordan captured the Old City during Israel’s War of Independence. Why did Jews choose to leave the comforts of Turkey in 1527 to live in Jerusalem under such dire conditions? The answer is because Jerusalem is at the heart of Judaism. It has been our eternal capital for over 3500 years.


Jerusalem is mentioned in Tanach over 700 times. Jerusalem was the city in which our Temples stood. Jews pray facing Jerusalem regardless of where they are. When Jews marry we break a glass at the end of the ceremony to remind ourselves that even in our greatest joy at a wedding, we will never forget our beloved city Jerusalem. In a Jewish home we leave an area unpainted as a constant reminder that we are not whole without our beloved city.


Every summer, we fast on the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av to mourn the destruction of our Temples and our exile from our land. We sit on the ground, recite poems that remind us of the exile, and cry out our longing to return to Zion.  One day, while walking the streets of Paris Napoleon passed a synagogue on the eve of the Ninth of Av. He heard crying and wailing from inside the synagogue and asked his companions why the Jews were crying. They explained it was over the destruction of their Temple. Napoleon asked his men when their Temple had been destroyed and they answered over 2000 years ago. Napoleon remarked that any people who mourn the loss of their Temple and the exile from their land after 2000 years will surely one day return.


And return we did, but not in 1948. Our return began over 500 years ago, when the Sephardic Jews left Turkey and returned home to Jerusalem. Today’s Jerusalem is nothing short of a miracle. It is a city where all religions enjoy freedom of worship. It is a city with modern streets and malls and industrial zones. It is a city of culture and music, pulsing with energy and vibrant in every way possible. It is a city that I love dearly, and yes - it means everything to me.


Wishing you all a Happy Jerusalem Day

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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