Hispanic Jewish group signs lease for $40 million museum

Institution in the city’s upscale Salamanca district will be the first of its caliber in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, a founder says

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

The former metro building on Calle  Castelló in Madrid, Spain is the intended seat of the Hispano-Jewish Museum, the first of its caliber on the Iberian Peninsula. (Google Maps)
The former metro building on Calle Castelló in Madrid, Spain is the intended seat of the Hispano-Jewish Museum, the first of its caliber on the Iberian Peninsula. (Google Maps)

A Spanish-Jewish organization has signed a lease for a building it says will soon house the first major Jewish museum in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula.

The building on Calle Castelló 21 in the upscale Salamanca District of Madrid is owned by the Madrid Metro company and it comprises three industrial warehouses with a surface area of about 2,000 square meters (21,000 square feet.) Rent is about $720,000 annually, and the community intends to pay $20 million up front to cover rent and taxes for the coming 20 years, David Hatchwell Altaras, the head of the Fundación Hispanojudía, a nonprofit promoting Jewish heritage and culture, told The Times of Israel.

The building has a centenary façade designed by the well-known architect Antonio Palacios. But the interior will have to be remodeled for another $20 million, said Hatchwell, chair of the Fundación HispanoJudía, which has been working since 2016 to open the museum, which it plans to name the Hispano-Jewish Museum of Madrid.

The new museum, which is scheduled to take at least two years to complete, will focus on the contribution of Sephardic heritage to Spanish culture and, by extension, that of the entire Spanish-speaking world.

“We want to make sure the museum makes people ask questions, not only about Jews but about themselves,” Hatchwell said, noting the genetic as well as cultural influences that Spanish Jews have had on their societies.

“This will not be a classic museum, but one that encourages a journey,” he said. “Genetic analyses indicate that at least 20% of the population of the Iberian Peninsula have Sephardic origins, which fits in what we know, namely that many thousands of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity merged over the centuries with the general population.”

The History Museum of Barcelona features a display dedicated to that city’s onetime influential Jewish community. Spain has several small Jewish museums, including in Palma de Mallorca. But neither it nor neighboring Portugal, where local Jews are also working on establishing a large Jewish museum, have such institutions of a caliber comparable to those of Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Moscow.

The president of Fundación Hispanojudía, David Hatchwell, presents the book Memories of Luis de Carvajal “El Mozo” at the Mexican embassy in Madrid, Spain on May 14, 2023. (Fundacion HispanoJudia)

Hatchwell wants this to change — but without government funding. “We want independence, and that can only be achieved if we build it ourselves,” he told The Times of Israel. Money from the lease and construction will come for a diversified pool of donors from within Spain and beyond, he added.

Spain, which before the Spanish Inquisition had at least 250,000 Jews, has about 40,000 of them today. “It may seem strange that Spain of all places, the cradle of so much Jewish culture and philosophy, has no Jewish museum of the kind we’re used to seeing in other major European capitals. But the Inquisition, which began in 1492, only ended formally in the 19th century.”

As Jewish life resumed in Spain, which used to be a dictatorship with pro-Catholic tendencies until 1975, “Jewish community leaders had no time and resources for grand projects: They opened synagogues and opened Jewish schools,” Hatchwell said. “For everything, there is a time, and now the time has finally come for a major Jewish museum in Spain.”

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