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350 Years in North America After 100 Years in U.s., Syrian Jews Maintain Values Their Forebears Held

November 5, 2004
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One hundred years after Syrian Jews began arriving on U.S. shores, the community in many respects still resembles its close-knit forebears from Damascus and Aleppo. And that’s just the way the community’s leaders want it.

“We are not celebrating the fact that we arrived in this country, but we are celebrating the fact that we came and remain intact so we see grandchildren acting the same as great-grandparents,” says Rabbi David Cohen, whose Sephardic Renaissance group organized a recent cantorial concert in Brooklyn to mark the community’s 100th anniversary.

The event, which honored three patriarchs of the Syrian community — Sam Cattan, 96, Moses Tawil, 89, and Abe Cohen, 91 — was the first of many events planned for this year to mark the group’s centennial.

Joey Cohen and Shirley Fallas, young Syrian Jews engaged to be married, have embraced the communal continuity lauded by Cohen.

“Family values are passed on from generation to generation and people like to keep the same values within the community,” Cohen said.

And it is this message that the Syrian community — which estimates its population in the United States at more than 50,000, mostly in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. — aims to share with the rest of the Sephardi community and the Jewish community at large.

“We have similar situations in some Iranian and Bucharian communities, who are well organized between themselves,” says Mike Nassimi, chairman of the board of the American Sephardi Federation.

The hope of the federation, he says, “is sometime in the future to bring all these individual communities under the umbrella to make them role models for other small communities. The Syrian community helps to keep the Sephardic traditions alive because they are a successful community and are well connected.”

The Syrian community first arrived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900s before moving to Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway section. Now, Syrian Jewish life revolves around the main hub of Ocean Parkway, where the community built its main synagogue, Shaare Zion.

But unlike other Sephardi communities that have not stayed intact, the Syrian community remains tight.

Charles Anteby, the 44-year-old public affairs director of the Sephardic Food Fund, says this has to do with the fact that the Syrian community boasts many organizations supporting its life and contributing to its vitality.

Syrians say there is very little intermarriage in their community and a low divorce rate. In addition, much of the community continues to live in single-income marriages in which the man is the wage earner.

“There is more freedom in who you want to date and hang out with today,” Cohen says. “But only with people within the community, which is a given.”

Because of the importance placed on being with family in the Syrian tradition, many have chosen to live within walking distance of their relatives.

“My whole family is Syrian,” Fallas says. “It’s wonderful, I love it. Everybody stays very, very close and sort of has their hand behind everybody’s back, watching out for each other.”

The community also stays close together because of its strong connection to Judaism.

“We are all considered Orthodox,” Anteby says. “There are no conservatives and no liberals, so immediately you have the issue of proximity to synagogues and because we have our own praying styles, we’re most comfortable in our own synagogues.”

He adds: “The community defies conventional modern thinking in that, although we embrace technology and commerce, there is a tremendous respect for our elders. This allows us to continue living successful lives in the new society while continuing to enjoy and embrace our heritage and tradition.”

Cohen also cites the Syrian commitment to education as among the reasons the community has thrived. They have set up about 22 yeshivas.

Although the Syrian community is often thought of as a wealthy one, Gabriel Shrem, a 31-year-old cabinet maker, says this represents only part of the picture.

“When people look at the community they look at the affluent sector and that is not by any means the true indicator of how the overall community is,” he says. “A lot of us are really hard working.”

Still, some Syrian American Jews have had great success in business.

“We make up less than 1 percent in the city of New York and maybe 1/30 of a percent of the country’s population,” said one member of the Syrian community who asked not be named.

“At the same time, many familiar brands can be attributed to Syrian Jewish ingenuity and determination.”

Some Jewish immigrants from Syria say that in the century since Syrians began coming to America, the Middle Eastern nation — now home to fewer than 300 Jews — has become merely a symbol to some in the community.

“None of my children know anything about Syria, because our culture is here now,” said Bobbie Beyda, a housewife active in the community. “It’s the Judaism that holds us together and the idea that we are next to our fathers and grandfathers.”

While they might not have a connection to Syria, Syrian Jews have a deep love for Israel, they say.

“The community is very Zionistic and always was,” Cohen says as he sat on stage amidst performers tuning their instruments for the cantorial concert. We’re to the right politically and overwhelmingly supported the Likud.”

In a room filled with around 2,200 members of the Syrian community eagerly waiting to begin the anniversary celebrations, Mickey Kairey emphasized just how strong that connection is.

“There isn’t a community on this planet as good as ours,” he said. “We never get tired of looking at each other.”

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