A Transatlantic Gift of Prayer

OU Synagogue Donates New Prayer Books For Historic Sarajevo Synagogue

By Ellie Schore, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

For Chanukah this year, the leaders and members of La Benevolencia, one of the world's oldest Sephardic synagogues, will receive a very special gift from the first Sephardic congregation in North America – the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue in New York City – through the help of one generous family and the Orthodox Union.

The story begins almost 600 years ago, when Jews first settled in the Sarajevo region of Bosnia-Herzegovina after their expulsion from Spain in the late 1400s. Their arrival brought Sephardic Jewry to Eastern Europe where it has managed to survive, despite dwindling numbers, for the last five centuries. Throughout its history, La Benevolencia has served as both a center of Jewish life and a safe haven for all citizens – regardless of ethnic background. During the violent war and horrific ethnic cleansing that have taken place in Bosnia throughout the last decade, the synagogue, now under the lay leadership of Jakob Finci, was a vital lifeline for the entire community – operating a soup kitchen, a pharmacy and a message service for people of all religious affiliations.

"The story begins almost 600 years ago, when Jews first settled in the Sarajevo region of Bosnia-Herzegovina after their expulsion from Spain...."

Fast forward to the summer of 1999, when Sima Osdoby, an American Jewish woman, moved to Bosnia and began working as a senior advisor for civic programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – a private organization that works to strengthen and expand democracy in over 40 countries around the world.

Eager to explore Sarajevo's Jewish community, Ms. Osdoby attended services at La Benevolencia soon after settling into her new home. Once inside the synagogue, Ms. Osdoby was struck by the magnificent Turkish-inspired art that adorned the walls and ceilings, the "magical and mystical quality" she heard in the voice of the cantor – David Kambi, a professor of music at the Sarajevo Music Academy – and the woefully tattered condition of the synagogue's few, antiquated Ashkenazic siddurim (prayer books) that date back to the early 1900s.

"I was really stunned when I realized how old the books are," Ms. Osdoby explains. "Even for this small congregation, there are not enough siddurim, and those that are there are falling apart and are barely readable."

After that first visit to La Benevolencia, Ms. Osdoby knew instantly that she wanted to give something back to this synagogue that has given so generously to its community. Once she determined that new Sephardic prayer books would mean the most to the dedicated leaders and members of this remarkable synagogue, the rest just seemed to fall into place.

If any organization could help this congregation, Ms. Osdoby thought, it would be the Orthodox Union. So, she e-mailed Vivian and Dr. David Luchins, her sister and brother-in-law back in the United States who have been active in the OU for the last three decades. "Is there any way the Orthodox Union could come up with two dozen siddurim...for me to take back to Sarajevo?," Ms. Osdoby asked in her note. "I think it would be a nice gesture for a community that has given so much of itself, truly doing God's work, and continuing to be 'La Benevolencia' for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Dr. Luchins, an Orthodox Union Vice President who is actively involved in the Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and Institute for Public Affairs, quickly contacted the OU's Director of Synagogue Services, Rabbi Moshe Krupka, with his sister-in-law's special request.

Rabbi Krupka then called upon a long-time friend of the Union, New York's own legendary Congregation Shearith Israel – the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, where the Union was originally founded more than 100 years ago. "The Union exists to respond to the needs of world Jewry," says Rabbi Krupka. "Our greatest resource is our member synagogues and it is our shared purpose – to the best of our ability – to forge alliances that will enable us to carry out missions such as this."

Fortunately, Rabbi Marc Angel, spiritual leader of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, instantly agreed to donate 48 new prayer books, complete with English translations, from the Union of Sephardic Congregations, which is based in his synagogue.

"Sarajevo has historically been a hub of Sephardic Jewry and many of our congregants' ancestries can be traced back to that part of the world," notes Rabbi Angel. "Our synagogue has always tried – to the best of our abilities – to maintain a connection to Sephardic Jewry all over the world and serve as a spiritual helper for such communities. So, when Rabbi Krupka told me that La Benevolencia needed new siddurim, I said, 'they're on their way.' It was just that simple," the Rabbi recounts.

In a kind of gift relay event, David and Vivian Luchins carried the siddurim with them to England, where they met up with Sima Osdoby and other family members to celebrate

Thanksgiving. Ms. Osdoby will take the prayer books back to Sarajevo with her. And when she presents them to Jakob Finci, David Kambi and the entire congregation – just in time for Chanukah – the siddurim will become symbols of a modern day miracle of rededication.

"I am so proud to be a Jew here, in this community that has been so generous in the face of the most unthinkable behavior in Europe since the Holocaust," Ms. Osdoby declares. "To pay back the courageous members of La Benevolencia in this way – by providing them with this gift of siddurim from the American Jewish community – is a true mitzvah."


Originally Printed in November of 1999 CE by the OU
Reprinted with permission

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