Congregation Ezra Bessaroth this month officially welcomes Rabbi Salomon Cohen to its bimah as its new spiritual leader. Rabbi Cohen, his wife, Raquel, and their five children have traveled far — all the way from Spain — to resettle in Seattle, but in fact, they have come home to family. Rabbi Cohen’s brother is married to the sister of Rabbi Simon Benzaquen of Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Cholim Congregation.
“And not only that!” exclaims Rabbi Benzaquen, thrilled to welcome his younger colleague. “First of all, he’s from my hometown of Melilla [a Spanish city actually located on the northern coast of Morocco]. We know each other from childhood.” In a way, says Rabbi Benzaquen, Rabbi Cohen “reminds me a little bit of myself when I came here.”
Like Rabbi Benzaquen, Rabbi Cohen is certified as a mohel (qualified to perform ritual circumcisions), a schochet (ritual slaughterer) and a sofer (ritual scribe, trained to write and repair the scrolls of the Sefer Torah). Born in 1958, Rabbi Cohen holds a B.A. in Jewish Studies from Jews’ College in London, with honors from the National Council for Academic Awards of England. He has a Teacher’s Diploma for Jewish primary schools and high schools and a certificate in English from the Official School of Languages in Malaga, Spain. He completed yeshiva studies at Judith Lady Montefiori College in London, and has also studied at Yeshivat Ohr Somayah in Jerusalem. He has served as kashrut advisor to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, and as assistant rabbi in charge of education in Ceuta, Spain. Experienced in the teaching of Chumash (Bible) and Hebrew, he has worked in the communities of southern Spain as adult education director, youth leader and Talmud Torah principal.
Even as he led the Orthodox Jewish community in Barcelona, Rabbi Cohen and his wife had been considering searching for a new home that would make possible the kind of Jewish education they wanted for their children. “To be honest,” he says, “we didn’t have the possibility of good Jewish education in Spain.” From Barcelona, the family moved to the beautiful coastal town of Torremolinos, where Rabbi Cohen helped a tourist town build a thriving congregation, complete with kosher restaurant and daily minyan. Then, last fall, came a contact from the search committee from Ezra Bessaroth, casting a worldwide net in search of a replacement for Rabbi Yamin Levy, who moved with his family last summer to New York. The Cohens came out to Seattle in February to get a sense of whether this might be what they had in mind.
It was. “I was seduced by the warmth and the Mediterranean style of the people in this community,” Rabbi Cohen admits with an easy smile, relaxing into his new office on a Seattle summer afternoon. “It is very similar to where I come from.”
Now, instead of one Sephardic rabbi with a Spanish accent, Seattle has two. But it’s more than history that Rabbis Cohen and Benzaquen share. It’s also plans for the future.
For one thing, “We’re going to make sure both of our synagogues have a trip to Spain together, and to the Balkans,” Rabbi Benzaquen asserts. “I’m looking forward to working with Rabbi Cohen and our sister synagogue. Even though we do things a little differently, we have a lot in common.”
“Sephardic” means “with roots in Spain.” Seattle’s Sephardic Jewish community, the third largest in the United States, colors our local Jewish life with Mediterranean foods and distinctive musical and linguistic traditions. The founders of Sephardic Bikur Cholim came to Seattle from Turkey around the turn of the 20th century; another group of Sephardic refugees, from the Island of Rhodes, established Congregation Ezra Bessaroth around the same time. The elders of both synagogues grew up speaking a blend of 15th-century Spanish and Hebrew known as Ladino (just as Jewish families with roots in Eastern Europe inherited a blend of German and Hebrew known as Yiddish). But in the four centuries they spent apart from one another, between the 1492 exile from Spain and these migrations to the U.S., the two communities developed some differences.
Rabbi Cohen acknowledges that he has some learning to do to acquaint himself with the Rhodesli — Rhodes-based — traditions. When rabbinic decisions are called for, he says, “if it’s minhag — custom — I’ll ask for a few hours, and go consult with others. But in matters of Jewish law, I’ll decide.” That’s what the congregation has brought him in to do.
They’ve also brought him in to re-energize the congregation’s youth programs, and to encourage Sephardic pride. “Rabbi Cohen is very tolerant,” says Ezra Bessaroth president Jeffrey Solam. “He’s very clearly bound by halachah, and yet he’s warm toward people at all levels of observance. He wants to bring members to our community who are looking for a place to go.”
Solam says that on the first Shabbat after the Cohens arrived in July, there was “an extra energy in the synagogue that we had lacked.” He tells of the enthusiastic crowd that came out to Sea-Tac Airport to greet the new rabbi: around 50 congregants, carrying signs and banners and singing “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” to welcome the jet-lagged family late on a Sunday night.
The Cohens are glad to find in Seattle’s Jewish community a number of Ladino speakers, as well as speakers of Spanish and Hebrew. Raquel Cohen is just beginning her English lessons. A native of Spain herself, she currently speaks only Spanish and Hebrew fluently, as well as some French. Mrs. Cohen is an experienced high school chemistry teacher, with a degree in chemical engineering. The Cohens’ three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 18 months to 12 years, will no doubt pick up English quickly as they begin the school year.
Expressing the congregation’s gratitude for the work of Rabbi Emeritus William Greenberg and his son, Hazzan Aryeh Greenberg, in keeping things going during the past year, Rabbi Cohen also enthuses over the legacy he inherits from Hazzan Isaac Azose, who retired in 1999. With a clear eye toward the future of the Rhodesli traditions, Hazzan Azose compiled a new, annotated siddur, now in its final stages of editing, which details the varieties of Sephardic prayer customs. Rabbis Greenberg and Cohen have been going over the new text together.
“It’ll be a study guide for me,” says Rabbi Cohen. Looking further down the road, Rabbi Cohen says he hopes eventually to produce more such guides, including a Passover Haggadah and books for other holidays, to document and nurture the old traditions of his new home.
Washington state’s primary election is scheduled for Sept. 18, 2001. This is the first day of Rosh Hashanah. For those of the community who wish to vote and not go to the polls on Rosh Hashana, you have until Aug. 18 to request an absentee ballot. Call 206-296-VOTE (296-8683).
Local JCC Maccabi athletes go for the gold in Sarasota
This past week, 17 young athletes from the greater Seattle area have been basking in Florida sunshine as they compete against over 750 other Jewish youth from around the nation and the world at the JCC Maccabi Games in Sarasota. Seattle’s JCC athletes, ages 13 to 16, compete in basketball, dance, table tennis and tennis from Aug. 5 to 10 in one of the nation’s largest organized youth sports events.
“The games are a way for [our athletes] to meet kids from all over the world and truly make lifelong friends,” said Joanne Harris of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Health and P.E. Department. She, along with Health and P.E. Director Matt Grogan, has chaperoned over 300 kids to the games since their inception in 1988, and notes with pride that our athletes are “always exceptionally well-behaved and competitive in all their sports.”
Ryan Farber, 14, who plays tennis this year along with his brother David, 13, is a returning athlete from last year’s games. “It’s good competition,” he said, “but some people are there just for the friendships, and that’s mainly why I’m going.” Indeed, while Farber admits he’d like to bring back a gold medal or two, the emphasis of the games is on meeting other Jewish youth, practicing teamwork and broadening the horizons of the young participants. Some of the most important aspects of these games are the Jewish memories and lifelong friendships such JCC programs help create.
Talia Langman, 14, is one of four dancers on the Seattle team, and will be performing a hip-hop routine with Ari Sulkin and Ariela Medrash. “It involves a lot of elements of ballet and jazz, but it’s more modernized,” she said. “I took a bunch of dances that I learned and shortened them and put them together.” Langman, who attends the Community High School of Jewish Studies, which meets at the JCC, is looking forward to practicing her Hebrew with the Maccabi participants from Israel.
At the pre-game kick-off party July 25, spirits and hopes were high as athletes received their Maccabi sports gear and went over the week’s activities. The program includes Olympic-style opening ceremonies at Manatee Convention Center, group activities every evening including a Siesta Beach Party, and a “day of sharing, day of caring,” where all Maccabi participants engage in a mitzvah project to help those in need in the Sarasota community.
Thanks to a generous anonymous donation, athletes who have never competed in Maccabi before each received $400 to help cover the costs of attending.
If your children are between the ages of 13 and 16 and are interested in participating in next year’s games (tentatively scheduled to take place in Baltimore, Md.), call Harris at 206-232-7115, ext. 245.