Rich culture of Sephardi Jewry is preserved and revived

TORONTO — In an effort to preserve and promote Sephardi Jewish culture, Yehuda Azoulay, founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series Institute, is leading the charge in providing English-speaking Sephardim with the resources to explore their rich culture and history.

Azoulay, who founded the Toronto-based organization in 2007, believes that if Sephardi Jewry is not promoted and information for English-speaking and second-generation Sephardi Jews is not made available, the Sephardi traditions and culture are at risk of being lost.

Azoulay said his inspiration to launch the organization came about when he was just a teenager studying at Yeshivat Mikdash Melech in Jerusalem, when he would attend lectures delivered by the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, who died in October.

“I was attending his speeches and lectures. That is one of the things that inspired me. My relationship with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was really big. I also had that passion growing up with my family,” he said.

When Azoulay would visit Judaica stores in North American and Israeli cities looking for books written in English about his Sephardi heritage, he thought to himself, “Why can’t I find any information about Sephardi Jewry?

“I thought, ‘This is crazy, and it frustrated me… There is nothing out there on our awesome heritage and it’s time to make a difference… I was waiting for someone else to do it, but I was getting older and by 20 years old, I came out with my first book.”

His first book, The Legacy of Leaders, is a biographical history of Sephardi rabbis, published by the New Jersey-based Israel Book Shop Publications.

“There was material out there, but not enough. Before my book on Sephardic rabbis, there were maybe two or three, but nothing well-researched, nothing well-done, nothing professional and that bothered me,” he said.

Azoulay, who holds a rabbinical degree and is enrolled in a master’s program at Yeshiva University, has since published a total of five books, written numerous articles and organized programming for Sephardi communities across North America.

Perhaps most impressive was his recent undertaking, which brought together Sephardi community leaders, rabbis, U.S. senators and philanthropists in Washington D.C. for the first time in history to celebrate more than 360 years of Sephardi Jewry in America late last month.

“The Inaugural Tribute Luncheon Honoring the Contributions of Sephardic Jewry in America” attracted politicians including Texas senator Ted Cruz, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and New York senator Charles Schumer.

Florida congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spoke about the legacy of Emma Lazarus, an American-born Sephardi Jewish poet, whose famous quote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” has been immortalized in bronze on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Jacob Abecassis, founder of Sephardic Community of Toronto (SCOT), a Toronto-based non-profit organization, was an honouree at the U.S. event.

Abecassis said he thought the Sephardic Legacy Series is an important initiative that will better document Sephardi heritage, culture and figures, which are not as well documented as Ashkenazi traditions.

“[Sephardim have] already done it in France, where they are very organized, and in Latin America – the Spanish-speaking Sephardim are very well organized as well,” he said.

“I think for the English-speaking Sephardim, it’s getting lost. We haven’t documented as much and we don’t practice it as much.”

But Azoulay, Abecassis and many others are working to change that.

“This is a revolution. People are joining, people are funding, getting involved. There are events non-stop. In Ottawa, we’re going to honour Sephardic Jewry at Parliament Hill next year,” Azoulay said.

“We’re going to bring [Liberal MP] Irwin Cotler, [Canadian Foreign Minister] John Baird, and we want to try to bring [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper in as the keynote speaker.”

Until then, Azoulay promises to keep producing material that promotes his culture.

“I want to finish about a dozen books on rabbis, and then after that, totally shift myself into cultural documentary films, which I’m starting to look into,” he said, adding that he’s working on a documentary about the roughly 10,000 Sephardi Jews in Toronto.

“I don’t want to stop. I’m addicted.”

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