A Minority Among A Minority

When I was asked to assume a pulpit in San Jose, California, about a year ago, I was not quite aware of the many new experiences I would find here.

Congregation Ahabat Torah came into existence fifteen years ago to meet the needs of a group of Jews seeking to daven in the Modern Orthodox mode. Its membership was a mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim. At that time they chose to function in the Ashkenaz manner.

Three years ago the board of directors voted to adopt the Sephardic minhag. This was a serious attempt by the congregation to distinguish itself from another Orthodox shul in the neighborhood primarily composed of Ashkenazim but with a small percentage of Sephardi members.

And so began my journey as a minority among a minority (Sephardim constitute a relatively small percentage of world Jewry). My entire career in the rabbinate had been spent in Orthodox Ashkenaz congregations, but I was entering a new phase as an Ashkenazi rabbi in a Sephardi setting.

I recall the first time I was privileged to pray with a Sephardic minyan. I was amazed to see the men putting on tefillin while seated. How many times had I taught boys preparing for their bar mitzvahs that one must stand out of respect while donning tefillin? And now here I am, the rabbi of a congregation where the men sit while doing so.

That difference was just one of many.

The first thing I had to learn was that the congregation had originally been called Ahavas Torah, but with the big change three years ago the name became Ahabat Torah, the Hebrew letter vet always being pronounced as a bet, especially by Syrian Jews. (Another example of that is the designation of the name for the evening service – Maariv among Ashkenazim, Arbit among Sephardim.)

Please note that there are many non-Sephardic shuls that daven in the nusach Ari mode (often referred to as nusach Sephard), but they are not Sephardic. Ahabat Torah uses the siddur of the Sephardim, which is different in many ways from the siddurim of the Ashkenazim.

Some of the things I had to get used to:

* Having the daily morning prayer Baruch She’amar appear in the middle of the opening section and not as the first prayer in that section.

* Sitting down for Oz Yashir.

* Reciting a form of Vidui both morning and afternoon prior to Tachanun.

* Saying the Psalm for the Day prior to, not after, Oleinu.

* Reading the eight chapters of Shir Hashirim before the Kabbalat Shabbat service.

* Singing additional lines in the Adon Olam.

Of course, it is important to point out that there surely are differences in customs and minhagim among the Sephardim just as among the Ashkenazim. In our small congregation there are six geographical areas represented by the membership: Syrian, Iranian, Moroccan, Greek, Rumanian, Mexican.

We have to learn from one another and synthesize these differences of structure and form. Added to this mix is the large number of Israelis who bring their own ways to the shul.

The pronunciation of Hebrew words remains difficult. We continue to have a mixture of the proper Sephardic pronunciation and the different Ashkenaz vowels and letters. Perhaps it is good when you accept them all without complaint.

A major difference in the mode of the synagogue service is that the chazzan recites all of the words of each prayer out loud. As I begin to adjust to that change I find myself at times sitting back and listening and at other times saying the words quietly to myself. I must admit that I am not quite sure what is the proper thing to do.

Ahabat Torah recently received a gift of a Sephardic Sefer Torah that we anticipate putting to use shortly. For me it will be quite a change in reading from a perpendicular scroll (in a case) rather than one lying horizontally on the table.

Many American congregations follow the directions in the yearly halachic calendar published by Ezras Torah. This has been a terrific resource for many years. It is, however, Ashkenaz in outlook and interpretation. There is, therefore, a real need for a similar calendar reflecting Sephardic custom and practice.

Another facet of Ahabat Torah is that we are sought out by anusim, those who have recently discovered their familial roots go back to the period of the Spanish Inquisition.

Each case is unique and we are in touch with batei din to ascertain the procedures needed for these anusim to become full-fledged members of our congregation. It is truly a modern-day miracle that they are experiencing this awakening. The rabbis involved in reaching out to these anusim perform a real Kiddush Hashem. Unfortunately, missionaries have infiltrated their ranks, making our task all the more difficult.

These true anusim, to borrow from the title of a popular 1960’s pop tune, are the ones who really “know the way to San Jose.”

I’d be interested to hear from others like myself, rabbis whose background is non-Sephardi but who are now serving in Sephardic synagogues. I will assume until proven wrong that we are a very small minority.
(Tags: Sephardic Jews, Orthodox, Diversity)

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