More than Kugel and Knishes: Harvard University’s Sephardi Society

Until the fall semester of my second year of college, I thought that “Mizrahi”? referred to a brand of shoes and purses. I did not know about Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors come from Middle Eastern countries, and who are often inaccurately labeled as Sephardim, a term that connotes Jews whose ancestors come from the Iberian Peninsula. But halfway through my sophomore year, I became more sensitive to such differences, thanks to my involvement with the Sephardi Society at Harvard University.

Harvard’s Sephardi Society is not large – it boasts a Facebook group membership of only seventeen. However, its existence seems to serve a positive role in students’ extracurricular lives. By promoting openness in the exploration of Jewish backgrounds, the Sephardi Society aims to help students at Hillel and in the larger university community understand that not all Jews proceeded directly from Eastern European shtetls to Lower East Side tenements to East Coast suburbs, as many young American Jews believe. Open to individuals of all backgrounds, the Society divides the Jewish population in order to expose differences in culture while uniting the community in celebrating Sephardic traditions. This paradoxically promotes both pride in one’s own special heritage and a willingness to accept one another as fellow members of “the tribe.”

The Sephardi Society aims to bring together Jewish students from diverse backgrounds, to uncover the variety of cultural practices in the Harvard Hillel family and foster an inviting, comfortable atmosphere in which students can learn and creatively contribute to the Jewish community. “Are We There Yet?” was a Shabbat dinner with a Caribbean menu that incorporated both social and educational elements while honoring the previously unheralded participation of Sephardim in Columbus’s expeditions.

Fliers with information about how Jews contributed to the exploration of the Americas through navigational and monetary resources decorated the tables. Other dinners have included guest presentations on the Jews of Brazil, Turkey and France, with international meals and traditional Sephardi tunes.

The Society has also hosted guest speakers on Sephardi-Jewish artists like French impressionist Camille Pisarro, and screenings of movies like The Merchant of Venice that address Sephardi-Jewish communities.

Food is an important component of Sephardi culture; Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which includes descriptions of past and present Jewish communities around the world, inspired members of the society to create “Sephardi Knows How to Party,” a post-Passover study break celebration of the return of chametz. Students jammed to Turkish and Ladino music while sampling delicious Middle Eastern pastries.

Students who participate in the events programmed by the Sephardi Society – whether those students are of Sephardi heritage or not – are likely to discover that the individuals who have contributed to the rich, vibrant history of the Jewish people are more diverse than we have been led to believe. This forum for Jewish education might serve as a useful model on other campuses to create programs that are simultaneously educational and entertaining, and that expand the definition of Jewish beyond the walls of the Eastern European shtetl experience.

The Sephardi Society does not rely mainly on electronic resources but rather prides itself on cultivating relationships with students and community members who identify as Sephardi in order to brainstorm for events. Fostering connections between individuals in every step of party planning, from the initial stages through the post-party clean-up, supports the primary goal of the group: promoting community. This should be a feasible goal for any college campus enthusiastic to broaden its cultural horizons.

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