Question: "Who are the Sephardic Jews? What is Sephardic Judaism?"

Answer: Sephardi (also spelled Sefardi) is from the Hebrew word for “Spain,” which is Sefarad. Sephardic Jews (Sephardim) are descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal from the last days of the Roman Empire until the 15th-century persecution and expulsion of Jews from those countries.

Cordoba in Spain was one of the centers of Jewish life and scholarship. One of the Sephardic Jews in Cordoba was Maimonides, the famous philosopher. In the mid-12th century, much of Spain was overrun by a group of Muslim radicals known as the Almohads. Many Sephardic Jews, faced with either forced conversion to Islam or death, chose to leave Spain. Maimonides fled to Egypt where he had a long and illustrious career as a scholar.

In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, known as “the Catholic Monarchs” due to their zeal for the Catholic Church, expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism. At the time of the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, the Iberian Peninsula had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 Jews left Spain and traveled to various parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and eventually the New World. Those who remained in Spain were forced to hide their Jewish identity. After that, the highest concentrations of Sephardic Jewish people lived in North Africa and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire). The Sephardi continued to speak and write in a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid language called Ladino and to maintain distinctive communities and customs.

The basic religious beliefs of the Sephardic Jews are the same as those of the Ashkenazi Jews, although the Sephardi tend to be more traditional. The Ashkenazi have traditionally lived in Eastern Europe, and the vast majority of Jews living in the United States today are Ashkenazi.

Sephardic Jews were targets of the Holocaust, especially the Sephardic communities in Greece, Italy, the Balkans, and Romania. Later, the Sephardi in Muslim lands faced persecution from their neighbors. As a result, many have emigrated to Israel. Today, Israel is the country with the largest population of Sephardic Jews. In 2015, Spain officially invited Sephardic Jews to immigrate to Spain and become full-fledged Spanish citizens, in a symbolic effort to undo the injustice of the 15th century. As of 2019, over 100,000 Jews, primarily from Mexico and South American countries, accepted the offer and now live in Spain ( accessed 6/8/21).