The wedding party for Morris and Gentil Israel, on the steps of the old Ezra Bessaroth on 15th and Fir, Sept. 7, 1924.
“We’re still here” is the proud and defiant declaration that will usher in the second century of community for the historic Seattle Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. The synagogue will celebrate its 100-year milestone anniversary in August with a gala dinner, guest lecturers, and the dedication of a new courtyard, sponsored by members Harley and Lela Franco. The garden will feature a memorial obelisk inscribed six times, in six languages, that honors the founders’ ancestors on the Greek island of Rhodes.
As the synagogue memorializes the now-small remnant of a once-thriving Sephardic Jewish community in Rhodes before the Nazis rounded them up and transported them to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau — with an exact replica of the same black granite monument that stands in Rhodes — they are also surging forward into a dynamic future filled with plans to increase membership and diversity, reach out to all Jews in the community, focus on education, and recruit a new rabbi.
“‘We’re still here’ is the defining message from those from the Island of Rhodes who survived,” Steve Hemmat, Ezra Bessaroth’s, president told JTNews. “We take a very solemn responsibility to perpetuate the traditions of the founders from the Island of Rhodes and, at the same time, to integrate people of all backgrounds, including different Sephardic backgrounds, Ashkenazi[m], converts, and Jews by choice.”
Ezra Bessaroth is a diverse community open to those who practice all levels of Jewish observance, added Hemmat.
“We are an Orthodox synagogue,” he said. “Most members are not, but you will see a tolerance for everyone.”
There’s a kind of “social contract” that goes along with membership: One’s personal observance is not prescribed, but the lifecycle events and rituals conducted within the community are observed in the Orthodox tradition.
Rev. David J. Behar agreed to serve as Ezra Bessaroth’s “temporary” hazzan and spiritual leader. He served from 1917 to 1939, then as hazzan until he retired in 1966.
When the first Jewish immigrants from Rhodes began their new lives in Seattle in 1904, others soon followed. Soon, they would need a “kehilla,” the Sephardic word used for a synagogue. More like a Jewish brotherhood in its first incarnation in 1909, the Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes, the Fund for the Aid of the Poor People of Rhodes, was organized. Its first building was located at 9th and Yesler in Seattle and the monthly membership dues were 25 cents.
Today, a congregation that decades ago held daily services in the Spanish-Hebrew hybrid language of Ladino, now uses nearly all Hebrew and English, with only a few prayers in Ladino.
“Here we are, a hundred years later, with the prayer and the ‘minchag,’ or customs that are exactly the same customs as it was 100 years ago on Rhodes,” said Joel Benoliel, a former board member and longtime volunteer at Ezra Bessaroth. Benoliel is also a member of the program committee for the centennial celebration and will act as master of ceremonies at the events related to the centennial and gala. “We think it’s one of the few synagogues in the world that is faithful to the customs of the Isle of Rhodes.”
Ezra Bessaroth’s original building, at 15th and Fir, had a grand, ornate bima in its sanctuary.
And that’s the challenge for Ezra Bessaroth as it continues to grow. They want to maintain their unique and warm character that many visitors and members love, while including and accommodating younger members who may not have grown up in that culture.
To do that, the synagogue is looking to hire Rabbi Daniel Hadar from Silver Springs, Md., currently an attorney with the United States Postal Service. Hadar has a strong background in outreach and growth, according to Ruben Owen, the congregation’s past president and grand trustee. Owen acts as an advisor and support to the current president.
“We’re looking for him to be an outreach person, to kind of bring our roots back together, and strengthen our Sephardic heritage,” said Owen, “while at the same time, I would hope that he would maintain the ties with our non-Sephardic members.”
The synagogue is currently in negotiations with Hadar.
“We need to educate people about the traditions, have Shabbat services that are more ‘user-friendly,’ and make the memorial services more meaningful for people,” Owen said. “Like many Jewish institutions, we are all trying to invigorate ourselves and make ourselves more relevant to the newer generations.”
Membership numbers have been “static,” added Owen, with new memberships being offset by those who are passing on.
Hemmat said he is hopeful that a new rabbi with the right set of skills will give Ezra Bessaroth the boost it needs.
“As we move away from the original roots, very few people are 100 percent Sephardic,” said Hemmat. “People are seeking meaning and tradition in their lives and it is a challenge to keep it relevant in the modern day. But with our newly appointed rabbi, we’re very excited about that future.”
Realistically, an increase in membership also means an increase in “the bottom line.” The 100th-anniversary gala dinner at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue on August 22 will attract close to 350 people. In addition to the gala, a two-lecture series, the first on Aug. 12 featuring Dr. Aron Rodrigue, a Stanford University historian and the second on Aug. 19 with Rabbi Marc Angel, founder and director of the lnstitute of Jewish ldeas and ldeals are all open to the community. Both speakers have strong ties to Seattle’s Sephardic communities.
“Finances in a recession are always challenging, but we have some very generous donors,” Hemmat said. “This gala is a major fundraiser for the congregation and we seem to be on track to do very well there.”
The leadership at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth seem to thrive on the powerful customs, rituals, and memories from their past. In July 1944, the Germans moved with relentless precision into Rhodes and nearby Kos, and deported all but 50 of the 2,000 Jews who lived there, a mere three months before they were defeated. Those 50 Jews that held Turkish citizenship were protected by the Turkish consulate. Only 151 Rhodesli Jews survived the Holocaust. Thirty-five Jews live in Rhodes today.
“This gala has to be looking in two directions,” said Benoliel. “The 100 years past, but it also has to look toward the future.”
A bird’s-eye view of Ezra Bessaroth’s current sanctuary in Seward Park. The congregation moved to Seward Park in the late 1950s, but the sanctuary itself was dedicated in 1969.