The city of Girona, Spain—once home to a storied and flourishing Jewish community before being wiped out in the 15th century—played host this week to rabbis from 23 countries, most with small and isolated Jewish communities similar to Spain itself—highlighting Chabad’s dramatic growth throughout Europe and Africa in recent decades.

The Chabad rabbis who descended on Girona—a city in the northeastern Catalonia region—are often the only rabbis in their respective cities or even countries. Assembled at the European and Central African Regional Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim)—which took place from Sunday, June 11, to Tuesday, June 13—they discussed specific challenges affecting such communities, including creating sustainable, quality Jewish education in places with minimal infrastructure; accommodating the Jewish needs of seasonal tourists; and, for many of them, confronting local economic downturns and a rise in anti-Semitism.

The group also met with Carles Puigdemont, president of the autonomous region of Catalonia and the former mayor of Girona.

In Girona's Old Jewish Quarter, rectangular indentations that once held mezuzahs can be seen on the doorways of ancient buildings. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In Girona's Old Jewish Quarter, rectangular indentations that once held mezuzahs can be seen on the doorways of ancient buildings. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Three-quarters of the 45 attendees—from Greece to Angola—have opened their centers since the year 2000. In 2016 alone, new Chabad centers have been established on the Greek islands of Crete and Rhodes; Aiya Napa, Cyprus; and Girona itself, with its general population of about 100,000. Among the attendees were Rabbi Mendel Baitz, who, together with wife, Rina, will be establishing a Chabad center this summer on the chic island of Ibiza, Spain.

“It’s a unique gathering,” said Rabbi Eli Rosenfeld, a New York native who with his wife, Raizel, has directed Chabad of Portugal since 2010. “This is not what you would call a typical regional gathering; there are people taking eight- to nine-hour flights to get here. But most of us are alone—not lonely, but alone—at our posts and face similar challenges.”

Aside from the hosts, Rabbi Avrohom and Chana Rosenberg of Chabad of Girona, the closest Chabad emissary who attended was Rabbi Dovid Libersohn, who drove 65 miles from Barcelona. Coming the farthest was Rabbi Laima Barber, who traveled some 5,500 miles from his home on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

The group prayed at the Girona synagogue in the city's recently discovered and renovated Jewish Quarter, which was destroyed during the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.
The group prayed at the Girona synagogue in the city's recently discovered and renovated Jewish Quarter, which was destroyed during the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

‘Person by Person’

Girona was an appropriate backdrop for the conference’s focus on small Jewish communities. But that wasn’t always the case. It was once home to the second-largest Jewish community in Catalonia. In 1194, it was the birthplace of the medieval Kabbalist, Talmudist and Torah commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman—known as Nachmanides or the Ramban—who served as its rabbi and established a yeshivah there.

Two hundred years later, in 1391, the vast majority of Girona’s Jews chose to die rather than convert to Catholicism. The last remnants of its once glorious community disappeared with the expulsion of the last Jews from Spain in 1492.

Organizers said the conference was being underwritten by Jewish-Russian transportation magnate Shimon Aminov, who in his travels has encountered many of the most remote Chabad emissaries and wanted to do something to support their work in return.

“When people speak about the end of the Jews of Europe, I point them towards the young Chabad emissaries who are moving to places that haven’t had Jewish communities in hundreds of years,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “These couples, as well as those in Africa, are strengthening Jewish life person by person, city by city, and country by country. In these places, the impact of a single individual is truly evident.”

Carles Puigdemont, left, president of the autonomous region of Catalonia and former mayor of Girona, thanks philanthopist Shimon Aminov, center. Looking on, from left, are: vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky; Rabbi Berel Lazar of Russia and Rabbi Dovid Liebersohn of Barcelona.
Carles Puigdemont, left, president of the autonomous region of Catalonia and former mayor of Girona, thanks philanthopist Shimon Aminov, center. Looking on, from left, are: vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky; Rabbi Berel Lazar of Russia and Rabbi Dovid Liebersohn of Barcelona.
Girona once boasted the second-largest Jewish community in Catalonia. Seen here is a dizzying photo of a recently discovered mikvah used prior to 1492. (Photo: Peter Seidel)
Girona once boasted the second-largest Jewish community in Catalonia. Seen here is a dizzying photo of a recently discovered mikvah used prior to 1492. (Photo: Peter Seidel)
The renovated courtyard of Ramban synagogue, named for the Torah commentator born in the city, is again a functioning house of prayer and a Jewish museum.
The renovated courtyard of Ramban synagogue, named for the Torah commentator born in the city, is again a functioning house of prayer and a Jewish museum.
The Chabad emissaries who descended on Girona, in the northeastern Catalonia region, are often the only rabbis in their respective cities or even countries.
The Chabad emissaries who descended on Girona, in the northeastern Catalonia region, are often the only rabbis in their respective cities or even countries.