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Thursday, April 29, 2010


For the last two years I have been helping out a small Reform congregation in Barcelona, Spain with its religious services and educational programs. They have been in existence only four years, but have made tremendous progress in the face of great difficulties.

Splitting from a fifteen-year old liberal congregation called Atid, the leaders of the new group, called Bet Shalom, set up a house of worship in what can best be described as a large garage in Gracia, a lovely Barcelona neighborhood. They number about 40-60 people but are highly enthusiastic. They do not have a full-time Rabbi, nor can they afford one.

I found them on line when I read a blurb about their existence. The fact that I speak Spanish was of great advantage to them. Not only did they welcome my help but also invited me to visit them. So, in 2008, Ines and I spent the month of June in Barcelona leading services, offering adult education classes and participating in a religious dialogue with the city’s non-Jewish clergy. Also, I was able to bring them a Torah Scroll (generously donated by Temple Beth Israel of Sharon, PA). I even did a wedding and converted six of their members to Judaism, using the nudist beach as the Mikvah.

Their dedication and hard work are note-worthy. They attract young people in search of a liberal understanding of Judaism. In their crammed little space, they meet regularly every Shabbat evening, and, following lay led-services, serve an elaborate Shabbat meal for everyone in attendance. They also offer adult education programs and Introduction to Judaism classes for prospective converts. Impressed by their enthusiasm, I decided to help them out even further. So, last summer, during the month of June 2009, Ines and I returned to Barcelona for fifteen days to lead services, teach classes and broaden their scope of contacts with many liberal Jewish institutions around the world.

So far, 2010 has been a year of great accomplishments for Bet Shalom. Through the efforts of my colleague, Rabbi James Glazier (who spend a few months with them last year), my personal contacts, and their own list of accomplishments, the congregation has been formally admitted into membership by the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Furthermore, a number of their prospective converts underwent a formal Giyyur (conversion) under the auspices of the European Bet Din of the WUPJ. One of the congregants, Dr. Felipe Ojeda, a prominent surgeon trained by me in Jewish law and customs, was recently certified as the first Reform Mohel in Spain by the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism -the first ever in Spain!

This coming June (2010), Ines and I plan to make our third trip to Barcelona. I expect to do all the rabbinic work as previously, plus I am looking forward to officiating at the wedding of two of their leaders. Now the congregation is at a point where they could use the services of a rabbi, perhaps on a part-time basis, who will come in periodically to lead them in their mission. I cannot continue to do this work far away from the States.

Who will it be?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


This past week, in a class dealing with Jewish weddings, one of my students at Boston College was reading an English text that included the Hebrew word huppah (pronounced as “hoopah” meaning, “[wedding] canopy”). He innocently pronounced it as “tchoopah” because the transliteration in front of him had “chuppah.” I smiled and corrected him. He is not alone. Most Americans, upon seeing the letters “ch”, pronounce it as “tch” like “Churchill” or “charity.” That is why I find the rendition of the Hebrew letter het (ח) as “ch” absolutely silly!

Hebrew is a west-Semitic language, which contains a number of letters that cannot easily be transliterated for lack of equivalencies. To resolve this problem, many systems have been devised to reproduce as close as possible the sound of Hebrew letters into English or other European languages. Among them the one created by the Society of Biblical Literature or the Academy of the Hebrew Language is well known to scholars and popular writers; none of them, however, is adequate or totally correct. They are often cumbersome and not always user-friendly.

Today, most Jews, unless they are of Arabic speaking countries, do not pronounce the letter het, a strong guttural coming from the back of the throat, differently from any another hard “h” like the English “hot” or “Humphrey.” Its sound would be close to the German “ch” as in “buch” [pronounced as “booh, meaning “book”] or “Achtung” [pronounced as “ahtoong, meaning “attention”), and in Spanish, like the “j” in Juan.”

Many American publications follow the German method, and transliterate het as “ch.” But this method often ends up being funny for a western reader. For example, the Hebrew/Yiddish word for “friends/company” is hevre, and is often romanized as “chèvre;” but that means “goat” in French. The Hebrew word for “festival” is hag, but it is usually transliterated as “Chag;” this sounds like the song my granddaughter, almost three, sings, “Toot toot chugga chugga big red car.” The Hebrew hai means “life” but when rendered as “chai” it reminds me of “Çay”[pronounced as "tchai"], a Turkish word meaning “tea.” Recently, in a discussion about Jewish circumcision, one of my students kept saying “tchi-toosch,” until I realized that he meant hittukh (meaning, “cutting”), because the text he had in his hand read “chituch.” I don’t think you can say with a straight face “chidush” for the Hebrew word hiddush (“novelty”). This is absurd.

So, I am, once again, starting a campaign to drop the silly “ch” from the system of transliteration. I tried before but was not able to get the attention of key people in the publishing industry. Using “h” for the letter het may not be the best solution but at least an American reader will be able to read it closer to the way in which it is pronounced by a Hebrew speaking person today. In my work, I render the letter "het" as "h" and the latter "kaf'/khaf" as "kh." Hence, for instance, I prefer Hanukah to “Chanukah” (it is not ‘tcha-nukah); hayyim (“life”) to "chayyim,” "barukh" to "baruch,"or hasid (“pious”) to “chasid.”

Hopefully, I made my point. Please drop the silly “ch!”

Rifat Sonsino