It’s one of the Jewish world’s oldest still-active charities. But will theSanta Companhia de Dotar Orphas e Donzelas—a charitable fund founded in 1615 by Amsterdam’s wealthy Portuguese Jews to help marry off orphaned and needy Sephardic girls—survive the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe?
Lots of Tradition
The ritual may not be as elaborate as those pertaining to the Netherlands’s royal family, but there is definitely something regal about a ceremony that takes place every year, right after Purim, in Amsterdam’s historic Portuguese Synagogue. Board members of the Santa Companhia de Dotar Orphas e Donzelas (Holy Brotherhood of the Endowment of Orphans and Maidens)—known as Dotar, for short—don top hats and dark suits to carry three antique silver bowls into the synagogue’s main hall, where a small crowd is waiting.
After the chairman of the Dotar recites a short prayer for the founders of the charitable fund, it’s time for the main event to begin. Inside each of the covered bowls are lots inscribed with the names of young people eligible to win a gift of money to help pay for their wedding expenses. The bowls are given a shake and children from the community step forward to draw the names of the winners. Those names are duly recorded in a large communal book called the Termos (Resolutions), and members of the Dotar sign the record. Then the crowd retires to a smaller room, where refreshments are served.
This past Shushan Purim marked the 400th anniversary of the Dotar, whose work has been interrupted only once during its long history: the years 1943-1947, when members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community either fled, went into hiding, or were deported to the death camps during World War II.
“We have Termos books going back to 1615,” says Jaap Sondervan, the Dotar’s current chairman, whom I met while he was visiting Jerusalem. “The previous Termos included the war years. After the war, the survivors left two pages blank, and they started a new page. I get very emotional when I see this—the way that they turned the page and began again.”
It was a very different world that the Holocaust survivors returned to, just as the challenges facing today’s members of the Portuguese Jewish community are different from those of previous generations. But before we speak about today, we must turn back the pages to the early years of the seventeenth century, when the Spanish Inquisition was still active and Amsterdam was a beacon of tolerance for those fleeing from religious persecution.
Read the rest of the article at The Jewish Press.