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    A ‘Magnet’ For the Community: Bringing the Torah to Naval Station Rota

    NAVSTA Rota Torah Dedication

    Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Lewis | 190702-N-TR141-0020 NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain (July 2, 2019) Retired Capt. Rabbi...... read more read more



    Story by Courtney Pollock 

    Naval Station Rota, Spain

    Living in Southern Spain, Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota community members routinely walk in the footsteps of the past. The white-washed villages and Andalusian countryside are imprinted with the struggle between the different religious groups that had laid siege and ruled the Iberian Peninsula through the years.

    The Moors, or North Africans, ruled this portion of Spain for over 700 years while the Spanish Christians slowly fought and reclaimed their way south. When the Moors were expelled from their final foothold on the Iberian Peninsula by the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, the focus then turned to the Jews of Spain who were ordered to convert or leave.

    “When the Jews left Spain in 1492 they took the Torahs with them,” explained Rabbi Irving Elson, director of Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplain Council. “Now as Jewish communities grow, Spain is opening and welcoming Jewish communities back so the Torah is also returning.”

    Elson and his wife, Fran Elson, recently visited the installation to present the NAVSTA Rota Jewish community with a Torah scroll during a dedication ceremony, July 2, 2019.

    “Going to a Torah dedication ceremony is special enough as it is,” explained Lt. Rebecca Cohen, deputy staff judge advocate for Region Legal Service Office. “But to see it on a military base in Spain -- arguably one of the least likely places you'd expect to witness something like that -- just highlighted what a once-in-a-lifetime experience it truly was.”

    A Torah, or “the teachings” in Hebrew, is one of the holiest objects in Judaism. It is comprised of the first five books of Moses that dictate Jewish law and practice. The scroll is kept within an ark except when it’s taken out for reading.

    “At the most basic level, we have Jewish laws that the Torah must be read on certain days and holidays and on the Sabbath,” said Elson. “They [Rota Jewish community] had a paper Torah but now they have a real scroll. Now they can really fulfill those commandments of reading the Torah.”

    NAVSTA Rota and Rota city leadership and community members – both Jewish and non-Jewish – were in attendance for the special dedication celebration which Elson likened to a “Jewish wedding ceremony.”

    “It’s a marriage between the symbolism of the text and the community,” he said. “They accept each other.”

    The Torah was paraded around under a prayer shawl before attendees made their way to the Jewish prayer room at the chapel. Once inside, the Torah was ceremoniously passed from Elson to Capt. David Baird, NAVSTA Rota commanding officer, Esther García, Rota city lieutenant mayor of culture, historical heritage, tourism and education, and finally Amanda Gipson, NAVSTA Rota’s Jewish lay leader and Asunción Ríos Rey, president of the local civilian community.

    “Receiving the Torah has been like taking another step in the consolidation of our relationship and being able to better fulfill our mitzvoth (obligations),” explained Ríos Rey. “For every Jew, the Torah is a source of spiritual nourishment and life.”

    The Torah was then unrolled so all participants could see and hold the Torah. Elson went around and pointed out important portions of the Hebrew text. After admiring the text, the Torah was rolled and placed into the ark.

    Elson credits the growth of this community to Gipson. As a retired Navy captain himself, he has passed through Rota throughout his career and has seen the installation’s Jewish community ebb and flow through the years. He considers Gipson a “rockstar” and credits her dedication for the consistent presence the Jewish community now has within the Rota community.

    “It is rare to see someone who has dedicated themselves so fully to building a Jewish community and opening her arms wide to welcome all segments of the Jewish community here whether locals, service members or people passing through,” said Elson.

    Gipson and Ríos Rey have literally worked to build the community piece by piece. With the community, they painted the Jewish prayer room at the chapel with Hebrew phrases, have fostered relationships with the off-base Jewish communities in Spain, and most recently painted an ark with the tree of life to hold the new Torah scroll.

    “We don’t have enough rabbis in the military to go around so our force multiplier are volunteer lay leaders,” explained Elson.

    The community extends outside the gate as well with the off-base Rota Jewish community being a ‘twin’ of the base’s Jewish community. The program links Jewish communities around the world similar to the sister city concept by providing support, sharing, and official visits to each other.

    “Since our military Jewish congregations tend to be small, it´s always a good idea to draw from the local civilian community,” explained Gipson. “And in our case, the founding of both the military and the local civilian community happened together in 2013, sort of like fraternal twins. We really could not function as well without each other.”

    Through cooperation these ‘twins’ have developed a strong community of fellowship and exchange of knowledge and resources. Ríos Rey explained that the local members also offer cultural visits and Hebrew classes to all members.

    “Being able to pray together and create kavanah (sincere intention) strengthens our twinning bond,” said Ríos Rey. “We are very grateful to Capt. Baird and Chaplain [Cmdr.] Ravelo for their support and to the JWB and Rabbi Elson for bringing us the Torah.”

    Rick Beigler, anti-terrorism and force protection system administrator and information assurance for emergency management, added that the Torah will become the “centerpiece of our community” allowing them to study and pray together.

    “The beautiful thing about being a part of the global Jewish community, is that even though we are small minority, you inevitably find other "members of the tribe" in all corners of the world,” said Cohen. “And that connection always makes you feel a bit more like being at home.”

    The notion of having a home here in Rota is what Elson hopes for this community.

    “I hope that it [Torah] becomes a magnet to the Jewish community, particularly interested young Sailors and Marines,” said Elson. “That they know they have a Jewish home here in Rota whether passing through Rota or stationed here.”

    The JWB Jewish Chaplain Council was founded shortly after the start of World War I to support Jewish personnel in the military. The organization does this by endorsing and credentialing rabbis into the military, providing support and training to military rabbis, and identifying and training Jewish lay leaders.



    Date Taken: 07.16.2019
    Date Posted: 07.16.2019 06:47
    Story ID: 331500
    Location: ROTA, ES

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