Community in Focus: Bendigamos, Amsterdam
Interview with Nachshon Rodrigues Pereira, founder of the Bendigamos Community Amsterdam
You are located in Amsterdam where the oldest and most famous S&P community still stands today, yet it is also home to one of the newest S&P communities: Bendigamos. Tell us a bit about the origins of the community.
NRP: Bendigamos is a great young community in Amsterdam, that started from scratch 6.5 years ago and is now one of the largest synagogues in the Netherlands. How did I come to start a new S&P minyan? Growing up in the Rodrigues Pereira family, there was always a good chance that I would be an active member of the S&P community of Amsterdam. Many of my family members have served before me as Hakhamim, Parnassim and Hazzanim. From a young age I wanted to contribute to the continuation of our traditions. I read my first haphtara at the age of 7. At 16, I became the regular Hazan and Torah reader of the Esnoga Amsterdam. When I saw the contrast between the state of the community compared to the old glory days, recognizing the potential for growth, I decided to spend a lot of extra time on community building: I started an education program, organized events for the youth and helped improving the overall organisation. However, the Esnoga is situated at a 90 minute walk from my home, and I live where most of the Jews in the Amsterdam area live today. In order to mobilize all of them, we needed to have a community that was closer to their homes. On top of that, I sensed that the younger generations needed a new type of community, with a different kind of leadership, atmosphere and communication.
And so in May 2015, Bendigamos had its first minyan in the area of Amsterdam where most of the Jews live these days. 50 people showed up for our first service and from the first day there was a happy, light and welcoming atmosphere. We rented a building of a Jewish organisation that was empty on shabbat and so a new S&P minyan was born.
Tell us about the leadership
NRP: Bendigamos is more of a movement than a traditional organisation. There is no real hierarchy and everyone is allowed to contribute. The ‘organized chaos’ theory. Of course everything has to be within our mission and vision. We have many volunteers, formal and informal, several committees and we all work towards the same goal, which is to spread ‘positive Judaism’ and to maintain our beautiful S&P traditions in a living community. Because our atmosphere is easy going and very accessible, we find that most people like to contribute in some way. We do have a board, but it is more a place to generate ideas and deliberate than a political arena. In 7 years we never had to take a vote on anything. Our main goal is to maintain a good atmosphere, further our goals, grow and eventually buy our own community building. We are growing out of our building now, with an average of 80-100 attendants on shabbat morning, with an average age of 30. And this is only the beginning!
We do have a Rabbi that we can consult for halachic issues and we have visiting Rabbis to hold derasot. However, we are still an independent minyan in Amsterdam. One of our goals for the next 12 months is to find affiliation with an umbrella organisation which allows have to have a fully recognized Rabbinate, so our members can also come to us for all life events. If there was a global S&P Rabbinate that would be recognized here, we would sign-up immediately.
Did most of the original members come from S&P background or did you convince them to adopt the Portuguese minhag?
NRP: Bendigamos has over a 150 amigos right now, and we get about 1000 unique visitors in our synagogue services over the course of a year. About half of them are S&P or have some S&P roots. We are also an ‘outreach’ synagogue, so for many visitors we are the first minhag that they really get to know. Other visitors didn’t change their own minhag, but they do like to pray with us when they visit. Instead of ‘convincing’ them, we make it easy to follow our services. Some things we do: we announce page numbers now and then, I created prayer books that are easier to follow for shabbat and all festivals, we offer phonetic texts for every service and we offer courses on how to follow our services. And so we see that every year many new people grow more comfortable with our services.
Bendigamos has shown tremendous growth in its short history. Why do you think this happened?
NRP: There are many Jews in Amsterdam that would like to be part of a community. However, in many of the established synagogues it can be difficult to integrate. At Bendigamos, we actively welcome people and help them grow comfortable in our high-quality services and in the community. Our community is one big family, a safe environment where we empower everyone and inspire people to develop their Jewish identity without judgment or force. We value our members and they feel and appreciate that. And we are much more than a synagogue. We offer a lot of social, cultural, educational, fun events on the side. So really, we became one the happiest places of Jewish Amsterdam and we are known here for offering a good yet sustaining time.
What advice would you give to the other sister S&P Communities who are trying to grow?
NRP: I am conviced that the global S&P community has a lot of potential. The key to success is to be proud of our heritage and just start spreading it in a positive way. Invest, inspire, believe in it. And if you are serious about growth, give me a call and I’d be happy to help.
How do you keep the community engaged?
NRP: We make sure that our community members feel involved in our organisation, first of all by being there for each other when there is something to celebrate or to mourn. By allowing them to contribute to the services or to organise events. By having fun social events where they can connect to each other. And possibly the most important thing we do is to do our best to keep a personal connection to each of our members.
Can you give us some examples of past or future activities organized by Bendigamos?
NRP: We organise many events over the course of a year. In the upcoming months, we will organise among other things: several big shabbat meals, student parties, teen leadership courses, a big community Seder, a cheesecake tasting and learning session on Shavuot and a big table tennis tournament. We are also scheduling a shabbat where the whole shabbat service should be led by 10-15 of our in-house educated teenagers. Seeing our synagogue full of kids that are enjoying themselves and learning our traditions is really one of the greatest things to see.
We realize that with our limited resources we can only reach a small part of our potential, we know we could attract and educate so many more people to our tradition. For this purpose we have started a new Patreon page, so everyone in the world who cares about handing down our traditions to the younger generations can easily support us to educate more kids. On the page we will also share videos that show what the kids are learning. I believe that together we can bring back the old glory of the S&P!
Contact email: BendigamosNL@gmail.com