Efforts to contain defilement at the Jewish cemetery in Toledo have succeeded notably. Dating back more than 700 years, the Jewish cemetery in Toledo, as well as cemeteries in other cities in Spain, are snapshots of the Golden Era of Jewry in Spain prior to the expulsion of 1492. Several hundred such cemeteries exist in Spain, all of which have not had a new internment since those times. In the 1980s, the municipality of Toledo built a school on ground that had been a Jewish cemetery. When the municipality recently decided to expand the school facility, construction excavations unearthed human bones. Upon further examination and investigation, the ground was determined to be that of a Jewish cemetery. Jewish historical experts further ascertained that several leading Torah scholars were buried in that cemetery. Multiple international campaigns focused on convincing the local Spanish municipality, as well as the Federal Spanish Government, of the unique sanctified character of Jewish cemeteries. Violating a Jewish cemetery is sacrilege. Unless a grave is in physical danger, re-internment is never a consideration.
Some of the campaigns initiated overlapped and actually hampered communications with well-intended Spanish Government officials. What should have been campaigns of education and negotiation sometimes lapsed into condemnations and confrontations. Denouncing potentially cooperative officials, whether at the local or federal level, is counter-productive. Receptive Spanish officials beginning to absorb the respect and honor that Jews have for their cemeteries suddenly found themselves publicly vilified. Humiliating the hand that reaches out to help is, at best, woefully wrong.
The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is the London based international organization led by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, greatly respected London Rosh Yeshiva. Beginning in the summer of 2008, when the profaned cemetery was determined to be Jewish, the committee began its outreach to Spanish governmental representatives in Spain, England, Israel, and the United States. In December of that year, the Jewish Federation of Spain, which consists of 13 traditional and Orthodox congregations and operates three Jewish day schools, contacted the committee by letter signed by Jacobo Israel Garzon, president, asking for help in the matter of the Jewish cemetery in Toledo. Using its decades-long diplomatic connections, the committee established dialogue with parties both in the local government as well as on the federal level.
Bones unearthed from the cemetery were placed into sealed containers for later disposition. A noted historian and cemetery expert from Israel came to Toledo to study the situation. He is also a highly respected architect. The building efforts were put on hold until all parties would reach a satisfactory agreement.
The school has more students than its current space can accommodate. In addition, the Jewish cemetery, because it was not used for perhaps 600 years, was not on any register of sensitive sites. Further, some in the local municipality insisted that the space was needed for the school and that the immediate need superceded what could be considered an unimportant, old, out-of-service, undocumented burial ground. The historian/architect quickly determined that it was, indeed, an important old Jewish community cemetery. In addition, the he submitted a redesign of the school expansion that would not violate the cemetery.
The architectural redesign was acceptable. However it cost an additional 1.3 million dollars, which the local underfunded municipality could not provide. After protracted negotiations with all parties involved, the Federal government was willing to underwrite half of the additional cost.
A New York congressman arranged for representatives of UJCARE of Williamsburg, Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer, member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of Americas Heritage Abroad, and Spain’s Ambassador to the United States to meet on Sunday, May 17, with Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum of Satmar, at his study in Kiryas Yoel. The Spanish Ambassador, Hon. Fernando Villalonga, advised the Satmar Rebbe that the Spanish Government is working out an agreement with municipalities on procedures to follow when these issues arise in the future. Ambassador Villalonga also told the Rebbe that the Spanish Federal Government is in the process of returning all bodies from the Toledo cemetery for reburial before the end of June 2009.
On Sunday, May 14, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger was in Brooklyn where he met with a number of rabbis involved in the negotiation process at Beis Medrash Vayoel Moshe in Williamsburg. He favorable reviewed the report dated Wednesday, June 3, by Rabbi Moshe Hershaft, a London member of the Committee, that he: 1. Personally visited the Toledo cemetery, inspected and approved the designated places in the cemetery where reburial of the exhumed bones will be re-interred; 2. Visited the safeguarded bones that were being kept in sealed containers in a secure storeroom under guard; and 3. Received a certificate of authority to remove and re-inter the bones. Rabbi Hershaft was accompanied by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Dahan, Chief Rabbi of Madrid, who confirmed the report. The report was first shared and approved by the Rabbinical Board of the Committee before its dissemination.
Rabbi Schlesinger was overjoyed to announce that within days a date will be set whereupon all arrangements will be finalized and the bones will be restored to eternal rest. In addition, work is in progress in identifying every Jewish cemetery in Spain and each one will be registered with the Spanish Government as well as with European agencies. Every Jewish cemetery identified in Spain will also be included in the United Nations list of protected heritage sites.