Bemidbar – Making Census of the S&P

ב  שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל,

The rabbinic name for Sefer Bemidbar is the same as its English name, ‘Numbers.’ The rabbis called it Sefer Hapikudim, ‘The Book of Countings,’ as it begins with a census of the Jewish people. The verse states, “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel (Numbers 1:2).” There are several censuses taken in the Torah for different purposes: to count the number of able-bodied men for war, to determine the amount of individual monetary contributions to the Temple, or to display God’s affection for His people after a time of punishment.

With this feeling of affection in mind, I decided to conduct my own informal census of the current state of the Western Sephardic diaspora. For the purposes of this count I decided to tally the membership numbers of all of the S&P synagogues which still maintain the ancient S&P rite. I’ve therefore excluded any community which is no longer Orthodox or has adopted a different Sephardic tradition. That has meant excluding those individuals who may identify with the S&P but are not formally part of any functioning Western Sephardic synagogue. As I’m looking at official communal membership, these numbers also include those who are not ethnically Spanish & Portuguese, such as other Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but nonetheless officially identify with the movement. Also, North American communities tend to count membership numbers in membership units which can consist of either couples, families or individuals. I’ve therefore elected to average them and count each membership unit as two people. European communities count the number of adults, and so children are not represented. I attempted to take this into account, but the numbers could be a bit higher than indicated. Overall, these numbers are rough estimates only. However, should anyone notice any glaring mistakes please let me know.

Furthermore, to put these numbers in context and to make them meaningful, I’ve compared them with similar statistics from around the turn of the 19th century. I’ve taken these historical numbers (and rounded them) from “The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period” by Francesca Trivellato, pages 57-58. You will notice that some communities only appear in one of the lists, while others do not appear at all. I will explain and reflect upon this below.

Western Sephardic Population Estimates
Community Population in 1800 Population in 2019
Italy
Livorno

4000

700

Venice

1000

600

Genoa

400

Florence

850

Naples

160

Rome

150

Netherlands
Amsterdam – Talmud Tora

5000

500

Amsterdam – Bendigamos

75

Germany
Hamburg

200

France
Bordeaux

1500

1500

Bayonne

1000

Paris

500

England
London – Bevis Marks

2000

200

London – Lauderdale Rd

1200

London – Wembley

200

London – Holland Park

300

London – Borehamwood

300

London – Hendon

50

South Manchester

750

North America

2500

New York City, NY

1000

Philadelphia, PA

400

Charleston, SC

Savannah, GA

Richmond, VA

Montreal, Canada

1500

Caribbean
Curacao

1000

Jamaica

1000

Suriname (SA)

1000

St Thomas

200

Portugal
Lisbon

200

Israel
Jerusalem

150

Ramat Gan

150

Total

20400

11835

Certain well known communities are absent from the 1800 list such as Newport, RI, Recife, Brazil, and Barbados as already by that time they had completely or mostly ceased to function. Some communities only existed between these two data points and therefore do not appear on either list (Panama City, Mildmay Park, London, New Orleans, Louisiana). Other communities only appear on the 2019 list, as they only came into existence during the past two centuries. This is particularly noticeable in Italy where unification and the end of Livorno’s special trading status in the nineteenth century scattered Sephardic Jews throughout the new country. The official end of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1835 allowed for the formation of a community in Lisbon, and the establishment of the State of Israel brought Western Sephardim from different communities together in the ancient Jewish homeland. Finally, in England, Jews moved to new areas and established new S&P congregations, some officially part of the ’S&P Sephardi Community,’ others as affiliates.

Significantly, some communities which appear in 1800 no longer appear in 2019, or have decreased in number. There are a variety of reasons for this. They include the devastating impact of the Holocaust on mainland Europe, particularly in Amsterdam and France, and the migration of Jews to new places (neighbourhoods or cities) due to changes in local economies, such as in Italy, England and the Caribbean. Sometimes, these Jews founded new congregations, but in other instances they blended into other congregations, whether Ashkenazi or of other Sephardic traditions. Finally, as with other Jewish communities in the west, the Western Sephardim suffered losses due to assimilation, conversion and Reform.

As a result of all of these reasons, the overall official S&P communal population has decreased over the past two centuries from approximately 20,000 individuals to 12,000. With a global Jewish population today of about 15 million, the Western Sephardim make up less than .1% of world Jewry. The Jewish population in 1800 has been estimated at 1 million, so at that time Western Sephardim made up 2% of world Jewry. The above explanations for the decreased communal S&P numbers, coupled with a far lower birthrate in the West, explains why the Western Sephardim have not kept pace with global Jewish growth. Finally, anecdotal evidence indicates that approximately 15% of today’s S&P members attend synagogue on a typical Shabbat. This means that overall about 1,800 Jews regularly attend a Western Sephardic congregation.

These low overall relative numbers, coupled with the now large non-S&P Jewish populations in many of the places where S&P synagogues exist (London, Israel, North America), means that Western Sephardim are largely invisible to the majority of Jews, let alone to general society. This has made it more difficult for Western Sephardic congregations to attract new members, or to influence the values or image of world Jewry.

Still, with S&P congregations in New York, Jerusalem and London, and in other places in North America, Europe and Israel (often the founders of Jewish life in these places), the S&P remains part of the global Jewish landscape, and with sufficient numbers to remain so into the future. With its unique liturgical legacy, beautiful rituals, and historical significance, it is important that the S&P survives. Furthermore, with its particular philosophy of integration with society and religious inclusivity, it is essential that it thrives. This may be its greatest legacy. Therefore, more emphasis needs to be placed on promoting its values, beyond just preserving its traditions. 

While the numbers indicate that the Jewish world has moved on, still it is my belief that all is not lost if Western Sephardic communities can find a way to collectively represent a movement, even while remaining independent congregations with their own identities and differences. By maintaining a unified front through publications, gatherings and the web, the Western Sephardim can raise their profile – and in so doing can win adherents to their ethos, welcome newcomers to their services, and increase support for their congregations. If the S&P is seen as a growing community it will then strengthen its right to have a larger voice. In this way the S&P can once again play a meaningful role in the course of Jewish history.

To become a ‘Friend of Bevis Marks Synagogue’ contact rabbimorris@sephardi.org.uk. To become a member of London’s S&P sephardi community, click here. To find your closest S&P synagogue or to visit one on your next holiday click here.

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