Last year, the two Sephardic synagogues in Seattle organized two Shabbatonim around the theme of “Sephardic Response to Modern Challenges.” The Shabbatonim were a great success — over 200 people attended on each occasion and the lectures and discussion sparked the interest of the audience.
Basically, what was said there was that it is a culture that grants a group an identity and it is the awareness, knowledge, and commitment to the culture that makes the group withstand the greatest challenges posed by time and mobility. The Sephardim are direct heirs to an extraordinary culture, which encompasses a lot more than the culinary taste for typical food and the folklore generally associated with the Ladino dialect.
The Sephardic culture is really a unique way of life that flourished during the Middle Ages in Spain, a country which allowed for the three monotheistic religions to coexist next to one another — though one has to admit, it was not always a peaceful coexistence.
It was in Spain where most of the Rabbinic literature that has marked our Jewish way of life was produced: Halachah (religious legislation), Kabbalah (mysticism), Dikduk (Hebrew grammar), philosophy, poetry and more fully developed there to an extent with no parallel in any other community. Beyond all of that, it was in Spain and in the places in which the Sephardim settled after the expulsion of 1492, where the cosmopolitan nature of the Sephardic character was nurtured: a character based on the notorious Golden Path (Shvil Hazahab). There was no room for extremism of any kind; the ideal Jew was one who fully integrated in the general society, and impacted it with the ethic and moral values of the Torah while maintaining an ever stronger fidelity to the traditional observance of our religion, both at home and in our synagogues and community centers.
I grew up in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. When I was a boy in my early teen years, there were about 1,500 Jews out of a total population of 80,000 people. While acknowledging that there were the typical community problems and that our challenges as a community were not the same as those faced by others, I do not recall any talk about inclusiveness or tolerance there because not one Jew ever felt rejected by the community, regardless of their level of observance.
There was never any discussion about Zionism, because we all saw modern Israel as the materialization of a 2,000-year-old national dream. There was one kashrut certification, the one issued by the local rabbi (my late father-in-law, R. Moshe Beuguigui) There was study of Torah and vivid discussions in the 12 small synagogues that existed in those days, but these only led to more community unity and more respect for our teachers and rabbis.
The community was basically a poor one. However, the three strongest institutions in the city were the Hebra Kadisha (brotherhood), the Talmud-Torah, and the Kuppat Ozer Dalim (fund to help the needy). Divisions into Orthodox, Reform, etc., did not exist — we were all simply Jews.
With regards to the gentiles, we enjoyed a warm and friendly relationship with all of them based not on tolerance but on respect for one another’s beliefs and customs. Melilla is the example I know best, just like Rhodes, Salonika, Izmir, or any of the many communities around the world which, in spite of the hardship of exile, managed to flourish after the infamous expulsion of 1492.
When the first Jews from Rhodes arrived in Seattle about 100 years ago, the first institution they created was Kuppat Ozer Dalim de Anshe Rodos: “The fund to help the needy of the young men from Rhodes” in order to help fellow Jewish immigrants settle and start their new life in this modern age haven, which is what the United States became for millions fleeing the craziness, wars, and persecutions in Europe.
We are now in the days of Hanukkah, which is an encounter with our past, as we celebrate we must learn for the future: the war of the Maccabees was really a spiritual struggle to preserve the integrity of the Jewish way of life without foreign imposition, free of external influences, loyal to the Torah and its dictates, based on the traditions of our ancestors.
The threat was not from the Greek enemies. The real threat came from the Hellenistic Jews who professed more respect and admiration for the new waves of modernity than for the ways and values they received from the previous generations. The ideological and religious division and confrontation between Jews was then, just as it is today, the greatest menace to our people.
These are some of the reflections that lead me to believe that in the present Jewish world we, the Sephardim who barely constitute seven percent of the total Jewish population of 5.5 million in this country, have a great contribution to make to American Jewry in particular, and to society in general.
This is why, with my colleague Rabbi Benzaquen, and with the help of a group of courageous individuals, we are launching the idea of creating a center for Sephardic culture and community life, to learn, to practice, and to teach that which is so needed today: the true spirit of Sepharad and its great way of life.