By Harriet P. Gross
There are so many people in our community who do so much, people that most of us have never met or even heard of. I’d like to introduce you to two of them today.
Bob Brenner is a long-timer in this area, and a resident of Highland Springs senior living in Plano since the middle of 2012. I’ve known Bob as a Jewish educator and a multi-year member of Congregation Shearith Israel. What I didn’t know, until I read Highland Springs own newspaper, is that he’s been a key force in founding a multifaith dialogue group in his new home. With credit to that paper, I pass on these facts:
A veteran of Shearith’s sharing with All Saints Catholic Community, Bob found new appreciation of different beliefs than his own in this new home, where he became friends with Dale Hooper, a retired Baptist minister from Fort Worth. During many chats over coffee, the two “disagreed completely with one another, but without being disagreeable,” Bob said. So they took the idea of starting an interfaith dialogue at Highland Springs to Lil Smith, its pastoral ministries coordinator, who says her job is “to encourage the spiritual journey of every resident.”
The group began early last year with 28 members: Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon. From the relatively easy sharing of holiday celebrations, they’ve moved on to tougher stuff: talking about their personal faith journeys. Dale Hooper says, “our goal is to learn from each other.” Co-founder Bob calls it “an eye-opening experience.”
Bob Brenner has found a way to enrich the lives of his neighbors by sharing his Judaism with non-Jews.
Rachel Amado Bortnick has been teaching Jews something about Judaism that most of us never knew before. If your heritage, like mine, is Ashkenazic — basically Eastern and Central European — you know we were called “Yids” because our parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish that Jewish mixture of German and Hebrew. But Rachel’s heritage is that of Jews who never heard — or even heard of — Yiddish. Their Jewish language is Ladino, a meld of Hebrew and medieval Spanish closely related to the Latin from which it was derived.
I learned, when Rachel was president of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society that she was born in Izmir, Turkey; her ancestors were among the many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 for their refusal to convert to Catholicism. Most of these Sephardim (from Sefarad, the Ladino word for Spain) traveled eastward to the then-welcoming Ottoman Empire, where they and their language thrived. But today, there is no Jewish community in the world where Ladino is spoken, where it would be a child’s first language.
“Our history is in our language,” Rachel says, and her passion is spreading both Ladino and its story. She has gathered an online community of native Ladino speakers like herself and those who would like to learn the language, and she recently spearheaded Dallas’ participation in the First International Day of Ladino, which recognized this five-centuries-old language in Israel, South America, New York and other places where many Sephardim eventually settled.
Rachel talked about her native language during the event at Southern Methodist University. Her co-chair, Dina Eliezer, was serenaded that evening by Raquel Pomerantz Gershon leading all in singing Happy Birthday to her — in Ladino! Special honors were given to our area’s senior Ladino speakers: Edith Arye Baker, best known locally for her eponymous art gallery, and Holocaust survivor Alegra Tevet, who baked enough Greek pastries for everyone to enjoy.
Sometimes people are well-known only where they live, like Bob Brenner and his interfaith dialogue group at Highland Springs, or among people with a shared interest, like Rachel Bortnick and her small band of Ladino speakers and aficionados. But like those pebbles thrown into ponds, their ripples cause effects much larger than themselves. And those among us, like these two quiet achievers, deserve wider recognition. Please join me in celebrating them.