Religious school principal, descendant of exiled Jews, receives Spanish citizenship

Sarah Pardo O’Donnell with her naturalization letter
Sarah Pardo O’Donnell with her naturalization letter (Courtesy of Sarah Pardo O’Donnell)

At Temple Adas Shalom, Sarah Pardo O’Donnell, a Bel Air resident, is the principal of the Adolph Nord Religious School. And now, she can add Spanish citizenship to her list of credentials.

In 1492, the Spanish crown exiled its Jewish community, creating a Sephardic Diaspora. Among those Jews were O’Donnell’s ancestors. More than 500 years later, O’Donnell applied for Spanish citizenship through Spain’s Law of Return.

In 2015, the Spanish legislature unanimously passed the Law of Return, allowing for descendants of Sephardic heritage to apply for Spanish citizenship, The Jerusalem Post reported. As of October 2021, 34,000 people had been granted Spanish citizenship under the plan, over 3,000 had been denied and 22,000 had not yet received a response.

O’Donnell grew up in Reading, Pa., where she attended Reform Congregation Oheb Sholom in Wyomissing, Pa. In addition to her work for the Adolph Nord Religious School, she also works as a Spanish teacher for Baltimore County’s public school system.

O’Donnell can’t remember a time when she wasn’t aware of her family’s history, particularly of their expulsion from Spain.

“This [history] has actually been very present always in my life,” she said. “My [maiden] name is Pardo; it’s a Sephardic last name.”

O’Donnell’s grandmother spoke Ladino, a Romance language spoken by Sephardic Jews, and she came to the United States from Salonica in Greece. O’Donnell said the town had a historic Jewish population, many of whom were descended from Spanish exiles, and in the past was referred to as “the Jerusalem of the Balkans.”

O’Donnell’s interest in Spain’s culture and language stems largely from her family history. In addition, while attending college, her family hosted a Jewish exchange student from Venezuela, whom she forged a strong friendship with. It was an interest that manifested itself when she majored in Spanish and lived for a year abroad in the Spanish city of Seville.

While O’Donnell has essentially no information on the names or stories of her ancestors who were exiled, that doesn’t stop her from thinking about how it must have been for them.

“I’m sure they were fearing for their lives, and at that moment in time keeping their Jewish identity and keeping their religion was their driving force in leaving the country,” O’Donnell said. “It was who they were. And to be very honest with you, this whole process has really connected me to my Judaism.”

O’Donnell first became aware of the Spanish law that might offer her a path to citizenship in 2015, when her Irish husband, Niall, told her about it. At the time, applicants were required to speak Ladino, so she initially declined to pursue it. But several years later, when Spain dropped the Ladino requirement, she listened to her husband when he said “this law was made for you.”

She started the process of obtaining her citizenship in July of 2019. The process was lengthy and laborious. She had to prove descent from Spanish Jews exiled in 1492, prove a current connection to Spain and pass a Spanish language exam and a citizenship exam in Spanish. In addition, she had to find particular types of officials to translate her documents into Spanish and approve them, and other forms of red tape. She finally received her letter of naturalization in the mail on Dec. 18, 2021, making her a citizen of Spain. As of Feb. 10, she was expecting her Spanish passport in a matter of weeks.

“This is not something where you can just go on, say you have a Spanish last name and you’re automatically granted citizenship,” O’Donnell said.

As challenging as the process was, O’Donnell considers herself lucky, in part because the program stopped accepting applications in 2019.

“This was not an easy task for most people,” O’Donnell said. “This citizenship, while it was meant to really welcome back all the Jews who were expelled, it was an extremely, extremely difficult process, which is why the fact that I was able to gain this citizenship is so incredible.”

One point in O’Donnell’s favor was that her mother, who died last year, had seen fit to frame all of the immigration paperwork of her husband’s family and hang it up on the walls of their home. This left O’Donnell with easy access to many of the documents she would later need.

“When I say this has surrounded me my entire life, it has literally surrounded me, up on the walls, my entire life,” O’Donnell said.

At some point in the future, O’Donnell hopes to retire part time to Spain with her husband, and to possibly purchase property in Seville. She also hopes her children will become Spanish citizens as well, something that should be made easier by her own citizenship.

“If my family could prove, over 600 years later, that they descended from these Jews who were expelled from Spain because of their Jewish identity, that is a huge driving force for me to teach that to my children, and have them know their identity and their heritage,” O’Donnell said.

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