With whirling dervishes reminiscent of the Northern African countries from which many of them hail, and castanets evoking their Spanish heritage, members of the American Sephardi Federation opened their annual convention here last week.
“So many people think of Sephardim as just being Jews from Spain, but really Sephardim have lived in Greece, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Each of these areas have their own way of davening, their own special foods, [their] own music,” said Leon Levy, president of ASF.
The convention served as a showcase for the entire range of Sephardi history and culture, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Americas.
The diverse Sephardi customs present a special challenge to preserving Sephardi heritage, Sephardi leaders said.
“When you go into a Yemenite synagogue, you can immediately tell it’s different than one where the Jews came from Spain or one where they came from Salonika; each has its own unique tunes, its own special flavor.
“When I go from one Ashkenazi synagogue to another, I don’t find that. Yo can close your eyes and not know where you are. We need to make sure that all of our different traditions survive,” said Barry Barak, a member of the South Florida regional board of ASF.
The federation serves as the unifying force for all Sephardim in the United States. Currently, it has 30,000 members and is the umbrella organization for 31 synagogues, Sephardi social clubs and old-age homes.
“We have our own national beit din [rabbinical court] and kashrut board. More Sephardim are coming back to their traditions,” Levy said.
Leaders of the federation pointed out that Sephardim have to deal with Jewish continuity on two levels: maintaining their Judaism and saving their unique Sephardi traditions.
The challenges are compounded by the fact that many Sephardim marry Ashkenazim. Also, the organized Jewish community is mainly Ashkenazi.
But Levy said that Sephardim are starting to assume leadership roles in major Jewish organizations. Levy himself has been mentioned in some circles as a possible successor to Lester Pollack as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“As Sephardim, we have been fortunate to witness an unprecedented renaissance among our people. We must find ways to create a new concept of community to replace the comfortable neighborhoods and Jewish streets of our past, so that our beautiful life-enhancing customs and lifestyle will remain a treasure for future generations,” said Edward Alcosser of New York.
Sephardi traditions and history need to be taught to all Jewish children, Alcosser said.
“We have a proud tradition and it needs to be passed on to future generations. There’s a lot in Sephardi heritage that can help American Jews today,” he said.
Several sessions at the conference, which took place Jan. 12-15, dealt with how the resurgence among Sephardi Jews can be translated to the general Jewish population.
“Tradition has been the backbone of the Sephardim. Continuity is a buzzword among all Diaspora Jews. I think community is the answer to continuity and we have to explore how to start communities,” said Isaac Garrazi.
Dr. Jose Nessim, one of the founders of the Sephardi Youth Organization, said his was one of the most successful Jewish youth organizations in the world.
Since its formation in 1979, the group has spawned 19 branches and boasts of 12,500 members worldwide.
“We’ve had many successful conventions and many couples have met under our auspices,” Nessim said. “I think we’re successful because the young people run the show. They elect their officers and decide what they’re going to do. An adult is in the background, just as a resource person.”
Sephardi culture and way of thinking came of age in a much different environment than Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, said Moshe Lazar, a professor at the University of Southern California.
‘Sephardi Jews lived under much freer conditions than Ashkenazi Jews from the 10th century to the 15th century, both under Muslim law and Christian law until the inquisition.
‘They were able to get involved in all aspects of life and not just be Torah scholars. There are definitely some things that we can use in modern Jewish life. Being Jewish does not preclude involvement in politics, arts and sciences,” he said.
Their different history has given Sephardim a perspective on Jewish law an observance that is different from that of Ashkenazi Jews, said Serge Otmezguine, ASF vice president.
This perspective “has helped us preserve Jewish observance and customs whi living in this world and not isolating ourselves,” he said.
Otmezguine said Sephardim accept the fact that many Jews are not strictly observant of Jewish law. But, in contrast to their Ashkenazi brethren who have founded Conservative and Reform movements, Sephardim do not seek to change halachah to the observance level of the majority, he said.
“It’s time we realized that Jewish culture is just as powerful a Jewish connection as Jewish observance. We might not observe the halachah, but if we change it, we change Judaism, he said.
In order to preserve Jewish heritage, Otmezguine said, Jewish communal life has to change the way it is organized.
‘Synagogues cannot be a tower trying to be a place of prayer, education, providing social life. Synagogues should be a place of prayer only. Have them all around the city so people can be shomer Shabbat [observant of the Sabbath] if they desire, but the community should be the heart of Jewish life,” he said.
Otmezguine would like to see community centers where something is always happening. “Individual synagogues can’t provide the population base to provide enough different types of activities to please everyone. For that you need a community center,” he said.