Signs of life from Sephardi students

Columbia University has a large Jewish population but, according to some Sephardi students, the Columbia-Barnard Hillel can’t satisfy all of its constituents. Reflective of the makeup of the American Jewish community, most of the school’s Jewish students are Ashkenazi, meaning that they are of eastern European or German descent. Jews of other heritages, like Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, face a lack of opportunities to express their religious and cultural identities.

Ashkenazi and Sephardi-Mizrahi practices differ in a variety of ways, ranging from the order of prayers in services to Passover customs. “The prayers, of course, are similar, but there’s some differences,” Columbia senior Mathew Samimi, a French-Persian Jew, pointed out. Alexandria Ross, who graduated from Barnard College in 2011, recalled, “In the Ashkenazic prayers, people stand during Kaddish and it’s not, like, the custom for Sephardic congregations to stand during the Kaddish. So, I’ll just sit. I feel like sometimes people are looking at me like, ‘What is she doing?’”

The Jewish Encyclopedia defines Sephardi Jews as “descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal,” who settled across the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa. Mizrahi Jews descend from those Jews who have lived in Middle Eastern countries, like Syria and Egypt, for many centuries.

Barnard senior Roxanne Moadel-Attie explained the difference in terms of cultural identity. “I think there’s a different sense of cultural attachment and I think that Ashkenazi Jews believe that their culture is Judaism and that Jewish tradition, that is their culture,” she said.

Most of the Jews involved in Hillel are Ashkenazi Jews. “The Ashkenazi community is larger and, therefore, it has a stronger voice,” said Hillel president Jordana Kaminetsky. Many Sephardi or Mizrahi members of the community also hail from the Tri-State area and go home on weekends. As a result, they are not as involved in on-campus Jewish life. “Some I know go home for the weekends but, of course, there are a lot of people that stay that are a larger minority within the larger Ashkenaz community,” she added.

Part Sephardi, part Mizrahi and part Ashkenazi, Moadel-Attie has experienced discrimination on campus. “I spent a lot of time in Hillel last semester, especially working with LionPAC [a Columbia Israel advocacy club] and other groups,” Moadel-Attie observed. “And I think what I felt is that people saw me as the token Persian Jew. People would introduce me to other people and say, ‘She’s a Persian Jew.’”

Once, after she self-identified as a Persian-Arab Jew, a peer declared that Moadel-Attie’s grandmother “must have been raped by a Muslim-Iranian man,” she recalled.

Kaminetsky said she has no knowledge of such issues existing within Hillel. “I can’t imagine what a discriminatory situation would be,” she commented. “People are really open-minded here and people are very liberal in that sense.”

A minority among Jewish students, Sephardi Jews are few in number. Including students at Barnard College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Columbia’s total undergraduate population numbers approximately 7,960 students. According to the fall issue of Reform Judaism Magazine, 25 percent of Columbia students are Jewish. Of that quarter of the student body, Moadel-Attie estimates that there are about 40 Sephardi students in Columbia’s undergraduate schools. Kaminetsky estimates that about 30 Sephardi Jews are involved regularly in Hillel. Though Moadel-Attie has attempted to turn Columbia’s Sephardic Club into a thriving organization, it remains inactive. “I do have a lot of ideas, but I need people to join to bring that to fruition,” she noted. “Hopefully, people will join and all will be good.”

Barnard senior Adrienne Hezghia also wishes she had a chance to explore her heritage at college. She says she doesn’t know much about her heritage herself and would have liked an opportunity to learn about it while at school. “I do personally because I don’t know much about it myself and I would have liked an opportunity to learn more about it at college,” she said

Raised on Long Island, Hezghia is a Persian Jew, but grew up attending an Ashkenazi synagogue. Since arriving at Barnard, a women-only undergraduate school within Columbia, she has not interacted regularly with either her Jewish faith or her Persian ethnic background, but wishes she had found the opportunity to do both.

In contrast, Samimi keeps in touch with his Sephardi identity through personal prayer, including sometimes praying from an Iranian siddur as his father did, his Hebrew pronounced in a French accent.

Currently, standard Hillel services do not satisfy Sephardi religious needs. The service style at the Columbia-Barnard Hillel is primarily Ashkenazi, the format of which never changes, according to Samimi. Luckily, Ross was able to find a Sephardi home off campus. Before she graduated last year, she trekked every Saturday morning to services at Congregation Ohav Shalom, a Sephardi synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Having to walk thirty blocks every Saturday morning proved trying, she admitted. Her Sephardi peers frequented other on-campus institutions, like Chabad. “They couldn’t really find any outlet in Hillel,” she said.

Some students have taken it upon themselves to diversify Hillel. Ilana Cohen and Ya’arah Pinhas, two seniors in List College—a joint undergraduate program run by Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary—co-founded New Yachad City in fall 2009. Taking inspiration from yachad, Hebrew for together, New Yachad City provides students with diverse Jewish experiences. “We started the group because we couldn’t find a space for ourselves in Hillel [where] we felt comfortable praying for Shabbat services,” Pinhas said.

Cohen, Pinhas and their friends went “shul-hopping,” attending services at various synagogues, which they now do as part of New Yachad City. In November, members will venture to Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish-Portuguese temple and the oldest congregation in North America; and to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue. The organization has also hosted events with the Sephardic Club in the past. In the future, New Yachad City hopes to learn about Jewish Persian music at the local JCC, host a “Purim around the World” party and invite the Shuk, an Israeli band, to campus.

About once a month, New Yachad City hosts its own Friday night Shabbat event. After attending the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, Pinhas recalled, “I remembered one of the tunes they used and we used it for one of the psalms before Lecha Dodi.” By switching up the tune of “Lecha Dodi,” a Shabbat evening song, New Yachad City pays homage to diverse Jewish traditions. “It’s sung by every Jewish community on Friday night, so that’s something really special to the Shabbat service that different communities change according to who they are,” she said. Pinhas and Cohen also include lesser-known customs in the service, like traditions from the Abayudaya, the Jewish community of Uganda

After gaining full approval as a Hillel group, New Yachad City hopes to have more individuals contribute their own traditions. “If we had someone who is Sephardic and led our services for maybe one prayer, that would be great. We also insert non-Ashkenazi things like a psalm at the end of the service,” Pinhas said. By giving students the opportunity to play instruments like drums, guitars and rainsticks on Shabbat students are able to connect to their heritage. “I think, through our alternative Shabbat services, you really get a sense of how vast Judaism is through music. I think music is a great medium to bring people together,” she said.

Moadel-Attie serves as the president of the Columbia Iranian Students’ Association, dedicated to promoting Iranian cultural awareness. Last semester, she worked with LionPAC and Turath, the Arab student organization. In doing so, Moadel-Attie attempted to set an example for others. “I wanted to also show the Middle Eastern Jews on campus that it’s okay, that they can be involved,” she said.

Moadel-Attie strives to connect the Middle Eastern and Jewish communities on campus. “I wanted to show people that, just because you’re Middle Eastern—whether or not you’re Jewish—doesn’t mean that you’re anti-Semitic and your identity ethnically doesn’t have necessary bearing on your political opinion or your opinion of Jews,” she said. “I want people to see each other as people. We’re all students at this school. We all have cultural backgrounds.”

For Sephardi and Mizrahi students, there’s more to explore outside of Hillel. “I think it’s good to step out of this bubble just to see that there’s Jewish life outside of Hillel,” Pinhas said. “I think it’s great what they offer, but I think that also Hillel struggles to get people who aren’t involved in Hillel to come to Hillel. I think New Yachad City is one way that Hillel can get people who aren’t affiliated with Hillel yet to come to Hillel and see that there’s so much more to Judaism.”

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