Tag Archives: North America

Jew of the Week: Isaac Aboab da Fonseca

America’s First Rabbi

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693) was born in Portugal to a family of Conversos, or “Marranos” – Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Despite the conversion, their persecution persisted, and Conversos often continued to practice Judaism in secret. In 1581, the Dutch Republic separated from the Spanish Empire, triggering a large migration of Sephardic Jews to the area. By 1603, Dutch law officially made it legal for Judaism to be practiced openly. In 1612, da Fonseca’s family moved to Amsterdam, where they could finally practice Judaism once again. Da Fonseca went to study under the tutelage of the great doctor, poet, mathematician, and rabbi Isaac Uziel, who had opened a new Talmudic academy a few years earlier. Da Fonseca showed his genius early on, and was made a rabbi by the age of eighteen. Some twenty years later, he was invited to serve as the chief rabbi of the Dutch colony of Pernambuco in Brazil. This colony had a population of about 600 Sephardic Jews that fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. Da Fonseca’s arrival in 1642 likely made him the first rabbi to set foot in the Americas. During his thirteen years there, the colony established a proper synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva – perhaps the very first in the New World – and the Jewish population grew to as many as 5000. During this time, he also wrote what is thought to be the first Hebrew text produced in America. Unfortunately, a Jesuit priest convinced the Portuguese to reconquer the colony and destroy its Jews who “have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity”. The Jews took up arms alongside the small Dutch army, and resisted the Portuguese forces for nine years. The Portuguese ultimately prevailed, but the Dutch would not surrender until the Portuguese agreed to let the Jews go. The majority sailed back to Amsterdam with da Fonseca. (One of these ships was attacked by pirates, lost its way, and ended up in the nascent colony of New Amsterdam. These first Jews in North America helped establish what would later become New York City.) Back in Amsterdam, da Fonseca soon became the city’s chief rabbi. He was on the panel that excommunicated the famous philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. In his old age, Rabbi da Fonseca became known as a great mystic and Kabbalist. He passed away at 88 years of age. In 2007, the Jerusalem Institute published a book of his writings and teachings.

Words of the Week

If you want to change the world, change yourself.
– Jack Ma

Jew of the Week: Edward Sonshine

Ed Sonshine - Outstanding CEO of the Year

Ed Sonshine – Outstanding CEO of the Year

Edward Sonshine was born to Holocaust survivors in a displacement camp in Germany. When he was two years old, the family moved to Canada where Sonshine studied to become a real estate lawyer. After 15 years working as a lawyer, he realized that he knew far more about real estate than his clients and wanted to get into the business. However, it was the early 1990s, Canada’s real estate market was in a terrible slump, and Sonshine was in deep debt. Nonetheless, he founded RioCan in 1993, and over 20 years developed it into Canada’s largest real estate investment trust. It now has $14 billion in assets, investing in some 350 commercial properties across North America, including malls, supermarkets, office buildings, and movie theatres. Over the years, Sonshine has become famous for his solid business ethic, as well as active community involvement, and charity work. For these reasons, he was awarded Canada’s Outstanding CEO of 2013. He credits his wife of 45 years for being responsible for much of his success, as well as his tough upbringing as both a Jew and an immigrant, all of which ensured that he worked hard. “I spent the first three or four years,” he describes, “going around knocking on a lot of doors explaining to people what a REIT [Real Estate Investment Trust] was… I was just looking at making a living. I was worried about bringing home groceries.”

Words of the Week

Money is fire: it can destroy and annihilate, or illuminate and warm, depending on how it is used.
– Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk