A Place Like No Other
There are few circumstances that would bring together a dozen people whose families come from Colombia, Argentina, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Iran, Mexico, Israel, the U.S., and perhaps a few other countries. At Bonita’s Beth Eliyahu Torah Center, it’s just another day of Jewish life. The approximately 120 member families of the 34-year-old congregation represent what member and co-founder Mayir Adato jokingly calls “a minority of a minority of a minority.” Unique from every other synagogue in San Diego, and perhaps from any other in the world for its unusual “melting pot” combination of traditions traced to a few dozen countries, Beth Eliyahu is the area’s only Sephardic, Orthodox, Latino synagogue.
“I think that’s something very beautiful,” says Rabbi Daniel Menachem Mendel Srugo of Beth Eliyahu’s diversity. “Everybody is from a different place. … It’s something very special to our community.”
Because it’s one of a kind in San Diego, and the only synagogue to conduct services regularly in Spanish (in addition to Hebrew and English), most of the region’s Jewish Latino families call themselves members, even those who might identify as Ashkenazi. According to Buenos Aires-born Rabbi Sruro, who was familiar with Sephardic customs even before coming to Beth Eliyahu in 1998, leading the shul was an entirely new experience and required some catching on to understand the traditions unique to the synagogue, brought by its members from their ancestral homes.
“Truly I was lost in the beginning,” says the rabbi, who had learned about Sephardic and Ashkenazi rites through the Chabad movement. “There were many traditions I didn’t know myself. I had training in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi rites, but for example, people from Turkey have different things [even from other Sephardim].”
Little customs like blessing the congregation’s children every Friday night after prayers, and also opening the ark after Friday night prayers to say a blessing for the whole community, then closing it again, have been incorporated when different members brought them with them when they came to San Diego.
And when members approach Rabbi Sruro about incorporating their own families’ traditions into the shul, he’s more than happy to comply (assuming, of course, they don’t contradict Jewish law).
The result is an unusual melting pot of traditions that have combined in new ways.
“I think we have things that are completely unique from most any other congregation,” Adato says, “and we’re talking about counting Mexico City or any place in the United States or even in Israel.”
One thing that many congregations claim to have, and that Beth Eliyahu does as well, is its haimasche environment. Because of the nature of the congregation’s very specific attributes, its members form a small community, and many have known one another for many years. Beth Eliyahu even shares many of its members with the Ken Jewish Community (a cultural center for Latino Jews in San Diego, of which one of Adato’s brothers was a founder), so it’s often like one big family.
“It’s people who have known each other for many years,” the rabbi says, “and it’s a feeling of relaxation here. Of course you have to behave respectfully in the synagogue, but at the same time people will ask questions during the service. In other communities, you never see that. The people [here] feel confident that they can ask in the middle [of services rather than waiting until afterward].”
Of course, Rabbi Sruro is quick to point out that despite the Arabic melodies that accompany their prayers, the Moroccan feel of some of the artistry inside the sanctuary, their Torot that sit upright and never lay flat, or their choice to have rice and beans on Passover, their goal is identical to every other Jewish congregation out there.
“The truth is that we’re all the same in the Jewish nation,” the rabbi says. “The law is pretty much the same. The branches are a little bit different, but you’ll always get to the same point in different ways. We’re all trying to get closer to God.”