December 9, 2011
In tiny Gibraltar, an outsized Jewish infrastructure
Four synagogues, a mikvah, a kosher coffeehouse and separate boys and girls religious high schools.
Combined, they suggest a community far larger than just 750 Jews. But Gibraltar—the tiny British overseas territory of 30,000 that sits at the foot of Spain and at the gateway to North Africa and the Mediterranean—has spent centuries cultivating its individuality.
“We’ve got an infrastructure that could cope with a community of 2,000, and we’ve only got 700,” said Mark Benady, a native Gibraltarian and vice president of the territory’s Jewish community.
Gibraltar’s largely Orthodox and Sephardic Jewish community has grown substantially in the past decade, increasing its rolls by 25 percent in just the last three years. The Jewish primary school now has a record 140 pupils and recently added a floor of modern classroom space with the help of government funding. Along the way, the community has become more religiously observant and, many say, more insular.
There is also believed to be a substantial population of Israelis in Gibraltar who generally don’t affiliate with the wider community.
Fueling the growth in part are soft loans of 10,000 pounds ($15,500) repayable over 15 years that were issued by the community to attract newcomers, who arrive mainly from England and Spain. Many, like Jo Jacobs Abergel, who moved here from Leicester, England, are married to native Gibraltarians. Now a mother of three, Abergel says she’s somewhat of an anomaly among Gibraltar’s Jewish women.
“I’m kind of a heathen because I wear trousers and I don’t cover my hair,” she said, laughing.
Jews have lived in Gibraltar since at least 1356. For more than 200 years, beginning with the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, there was no Jewish life here. That changed in 1713 when Britain took control of the territory affectionately dubbed “Gib” or “the rock.”
In the centuries since, Jews have occupied major political positions. In 2008-09, the largely ceremonial post of mayor was occupied by Solomon Levy. Still, some say the walls between Jew and non-Jew in Gibraltar have grown taller.
“There’s Jews here that have absolutely no contact with non-Jews,” Abergel said. “They won’t send them to anything—swimming lessons, ballet, judo, etc.,—if it’s not organized by the Jewish community.”
That wasn’t always the case. As a student, Benady attended a non-Jewish comprehensive school and had many non-Jewish friends—that’s less common for young Jewish Gibraltarians today. But Benady says he appreciates the warmth and closeness brought by a sense of shared purpose.
“When it comes to chagim [holidays], it’s really lovely,” said Benady, who left to work in Manchester, England, for about a decade but returned because he preferred Gibraltar. “It’s very much a single community where we feel like one family, where we all join together for smachot [joyous occasions] and we all join together, unfortunately, for sad occasions as well.”
Gibraltar’s Jews, like the territory itself, straddle two worlds. The territory’s border with Spain was closed in 1967 by dictator Francisco Franco following a referendum indicating that Gibraltarians overwhelmingly wished to remain British. The border, which is marked by Gibraltar’s airport runway, didn’t reopen fully until 1985, on the eve of Spain’s accession to the European Economic Community.
Today the territory—its skyline dominated by the famous Upper Rock and its resident Barbary macaque monkeys—is a destination for bargain hunters, who take advantage of its tax-haven status to purchase inexpensive cigarettes and perfumes, among other goods. As a British territory, English is the official language, the queen is head of state and the Gibraltar pound—pegged to its British equivalent—is the official currency. But the Spanish influence remains strong. Many Spaniards cross the runway each day to work, and native Gibraltarians speak their own language, Llanito, a blend of English and Spanish with a sprinkling of Hebrew.
Idan Greenberg, an Israeli who moved to Gibraltar with his wife 3 1/2 years ago, runs the Verdi Verdi kosher coffeehouse on Casemates Square, an open-air plaza dotted with boutiques, cafes and pubs at the entrance to Main Street. Two of the thoroughfare’s biggest outlets—the S.M. Seruya perfume store and Cohen and Massias jewelers—are Jewish-owned.
With its chic brown-and-gold suede seating and vibrant orange chairs, Verdi Verdi wouldn’t be out of place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On a recent Friday afternoon, an American Jewish woman studying abroad in Spain popped in to grab a soup and was shocked to discover a Jew running a kosher establishment, despite the mezuzah on the door.
“Kvetching about the price of soup?” Greenberg asked her.
“How do you know that word?” she responded in surprise.
Greenberg says he wants his restaurant to appeal broadly to Gibraltarians, but like Abergel he laments the insularity he associates with the community’s increasing piety. And according to Benady, the isolation is a concern even beyond the confines of the community.
“There is a bit of a concern amongst the non-Jewish population that we are isolating ourselves a little,” Benady said. “But it’s very difficult to decide where to draw the line.”
That sort of closeness yields little room for those Jews who don’t observe in the Orthodox fashion, some say. There are no non-Orthodox synagogues in Gibraltar, and the community observes the religious dicta published by the relatively strict Orthodox religious court in London.
“The social life very much revolves around Shabbat,” Abergel said. “It’s very different from my life in England, completely. In the UK, you could be Jewish culturally. There were dances, there were fundraising events, there was loads of stuff you could get involved in whatever level you were at.”
But for Benady, there’s a careful line that must be drawn between assimilation and isolation.
“I think,” he said, “we’ve managed to draw the line in a comfortable place.”