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The New Sephardic Generation

Young Jews are organizing in an effort to preserve Sephardic culture in America

by
Paula Jacobs
June 01, 2021
Maegan Gindi
Members of the Sephardic Mizrahi Q Network at the New York City Pride March, 2019Maegan Gindi
Maegan Gindi
Members of the Sephardic Mizrahi Q Network at the New York City Pride March, 2019Maegan Gindi

When Ethan Marcus, who grew up in a traditional Jewish household in New York, started Princeton in the fall of 2014, his first Shabbat at Hillel was a rude awakening. The Orthodox service was unlike what he attended at Kehila Kedosha Janina, a Greek Romaniote synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And the Ashkenazi cholent that he tasted for the first time was a far cry from his customary Sephardic Shabbat lunch of bourekas, feta cheese, and assorted salads. Marcus, whose paternal ancestors came to America from the Ottoman Empire a century ago, was realizing for the first time his own minority status within the larger Jewish community.

Since immigrating to the U.S. in the early 20th century, Sephardic Jews have struggled to gain acceptance as both Americans and Jews. In the Ashkenormative American Jewish society, where Ashkenazi culture is the norm, their Sephardic roots were often a source of embarrassment. Even today, at Jewish day schools and college campuses, Sephardic students say that they feel marginalized because of the absence of Sephardic minyanim and programming or acknowledgment of their cultural and religious heritage—and even when it is recognized, they feel patronized because the context is often limited to food, rather than Sephardic contributions to Jewish literature, philosophy, and the arts, or rabbinic approaches to contemporary Jewish issues.

“Sephardic Jews were a minority in their places of origin, and also in some American communities they were a minority within a minority,” explained Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a historian of Sephardic Jewry, UCLA professor and author of the book Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century.

Over time, Sephardic Jews have integrated into American society, but preserving their identity has become more difficult as younger Jews become many generations removed from the immigrant ancestors who directly passed along their history and traditions. “My kids didn’t have access to my grandparents who spoke Ladino and came from these Ottoman lands where Sephardim had lived for hundreds of years. I had that connection,” said Marc Ben-Ezra, an active member of the Sephardic community in South Florida and soon to become the first Sephardic president of Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale.

In recent years, though, a new generation of Sephardic Jews—from college students to young professionals—has stepped up to reclaim its heritage and ensure its continuity in an America that celebrates different cultures and heritages. “This is a moment where diversity is being embraced in the wider American landscape,” said Stein.

Young Sephardic Jews are trying to disentangle the umbrella category of Sephardic Jews that often refers to all non-Ashkenazi Jews, and give more specific content and meaning to their own family trajectories, such as Ladino-speaking, Moroccan, Syrian, and Persian backgrounds, explains Devin Naar, 38, who chairs Sephardic studies at the University of Washington.

“They want acknowledgment that these are distinct and legitimate cultures and communities with their own histories (and futures) that should not all be reduced to a broad amorphous category of Sephardic or non-Ashkenazi,” said Naar. He speaks Ladino with his children, both to honor his immigrant ancestors and connect his young kids with their roots. 

He also sees today’s resurgence of Sephardic identity as a repudiation of Ashkenormativity. “I think it is part of a broader phenomenon of a younger generation confronting the blind spots and injustices of the dominant Jewish communal stories,” said Naar, whose lecture series, “Sephardic Jews and Race in the United States,” provides a historical perspective.

Indeed, this new generation of Sephardic Jews is actively working to tell its story and secure its solid place within the American Jewish narrative, using social media as a key tool. Their initiatives—from education to culture—speak to the diversity of the Sephardic experience reflecting family roots in Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, and across the Middle East.

“The Sephardic community has a voice and we need to have people from outside the community listen to us,” said 24-year-old Julia Cassuto Keahey, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor from Salonica, whose activism was ignited during a Sephardic Birthright trip to Israel in 2019. “While our voice is getting stronger, it requires people to listen so we aren’t shouting into a void.”

After his initial culture shock during his first year at college, Marcus became active in Jewish student life at Princeton Hillel: Center for Jewish Life, the Yavneh House of Princeton (Orthodox Jewish community), and Chabad on Campus. He organized events and programs such as a Jewish tour of Greece, an academic lecture on the Sephardic community of Salonica, and a Greek Jewish themed Shabbat dinner at Hillel. In summer 2015, he created, with his brother Andrew, the first Greek Jewish street fair in New York City—an annual event before the pandemic, attracting more than 10,000 visitors in 2019. Marcus also became active with the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America; during his sophomore year, he created the first Sephardic Birthright trip to Israel in 2016, with 40 participants.

While our voice is getting stronger, it requires people to listen so we aren’t shouting into a void.

Since graduating in 2018 from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, he has dedicated himself to the Sephardic community—as community development director for Seattle’s Sephardic Jewish community and as a Fulbright Research Scholar in Greece. “If I don’t step up in a professional capacity for the Sephardic community, no one will,” he explained.

Marcus, 25, is currently managing director of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America. In spring 2020, he launched the Sephardic Digital Academy, with an initial five online classes. It now offers more than 350 classes and online lectures, averaging 15 classes per month that attract more than 35,000 unique participants across the world. Instructors include leading Sephardic scholars, thinkers, rabbis, professional chefs, and community organizers who teach on such topics as: contemporary Jewish issues from a Sephardic perspective, women in the Sephardic tradition, Torah, and Sephardic history. Recordings are posted on YouTube and Facebook. The century-old brotherhood is now focused on developing a cadre of young leaders, with plans for a national youth conference in the fall. Its Sephardic Young Professionals Network hosts social and cultural events such as a Sephardic Lag Ba’Omer picnic in Central Park held this May and a Zoom book club.

Nor is Marcus alone in mobilizing Sephardic Jews and raising awareness for the Sephardic experience. As Founding Executive Director of the Sephardic Mizrahi Q Network, Ruben Shimonov, a 34-year-old Jewish educator and community builder and Bukharan Jew, has created a safe and supportive community for LGBTQ+ Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews—a network of 850 community members ranging in age from 20s to 40s—informed by classic Sephardic values of tolerance, togetherness, balance, and intellectualism. During the pandemic, SMQN shifted its programming from in-person events and Shabbat programming to virtual events that engaged a global community. This June, in honor of Pride Month, the organization plans to resume its hallmark Shabbat dinners in an outdoor space in New York City.

Shimonov also leads the new American Sephardi House Fellowship program, which immerses Sephardic Jewish college students in the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Sephardic tradition. The fellowship is designed so the new generation of Sephardic leaders can acquire knowledge about the greater Sephardic experience to take ownership of their Sephardic identity, said Shimonov. The 13 fellows—representing campuses across the U.S. and different Sephardic backgrounds—participate in a yearlong program that incorporates text study, monthly group discussions and guest lectures by leading scholars and artists, and leadership training. An important component is creating original projects reflecting their own Sephardic identity and skill sets, which they share with their campus community such as: an online art exhibit, Shiviti, produced in May by Rochelle Dweck—a studio art major at Syracuse University who comes from a Syrian and Egyptian background—that reflects her research of ancient Syrian synagogues where Shiviti images on the walls are a reminder of God’s presence; a Shabbaton organized by Ariella Niego Levy at the University of Pittsburgh that showcased the Sephardic cuisine of her Ladino-speaking ancestors from Greece and Turkey; and a 10-minute music video about the Sephardic experience produced by Queens College student and musician Dvir Avnon-Klein, the descendant of Spanish Jews who lived in Jerusalem for generations.

If this music helped Jews sustain their heritage, it can help contemporary Jews maintain the bond,” said Avnon-Klein, who also plays in Chutzpah Caravan, his family’s band, “it is important for me to keep this musical tradition alive.”

The fellowship was conceived by Joshua Benaim, a real estate entrepreneur and operatic baritone—and author of the forthcoming book Real Estate, A Love Story: Wisdom, Honor, and Beauty in the Toughest Business in the World, which makes a passionate case for incorporating old world values and the humanities into business. “Amid antisemitism and the contentious political environment, I wanted to light a candle,” explained Benaim. “I realized the best antidote would be a positive and joyful immersion in poetry, philosophy, history, spirituality, and music. To me, Sephardic Jewish culture has always been able to synthesize the spiritual and Jewish world with the world of science, philosophy, and business.”

Indeed, ensuring the continuity of Sephardic Judaism requires a strong educational foundation. “It’s beautiful to celebrate culture and language but it is not sustainable long term. The greatest challenge is to find meaning for Sephardic Jews in the 21st century,” cautioned Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, which teaches the moderate Halachic approach and tolerant worldview of classic Sephardic Judaism’s major rabbinic figures such as Maimonides.

The SEC works to strengthen Jewish identity and build a new generation of Sephardic leadership, with classes and trips to Israel. During high school, Brandeis University sophomore and Ladino-speaker Robert Carlson organized a Ladino reading group in his native Los Angeles where he took classes at the local SEC branch to better understand his own heritage. He hopes to inspire other young Sephardic Jews to learn about their traditions. For now, he is spreading the word on social media, and working to ensure that SEC messaging and programs target his generation.

To foster a Sephardic identity, education must begin at an early age. “We need to preserve the history before it’s too late,” said 21-year-old Binghamton University student Zack Ben-Ezra, director of programming at Sephardic Adventure Camp—the only Sephardic camp in the U.S. During the summer, he teaches campers about Sephardic identity, traditions, and history; he has created experiential educational programs such as a mock Sephardic wedding and “Escapando de España,” which simulated the escape from the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet, revitalizing Sephardic life in America remains an uphill battle. In the U.S., while a handful of Sephardic synagogues remain, limited resources have been invested in the Sephardic community. There are few university Sephardic studies classes and most Americans know little about Sephardic Jews in America and their history—something that Max Modiano Daniel, a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, aspires to change upon publishing his dissertation about Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles and Jewishness in the Sephardic world.

Moreover, today’s U.S. Sephardic population is relatively small: only 3% of American Jews self-identify exclusively as Sephardic (plus an additional 1% if Mizrahi Jews, i.e., from North Africa and the Middle East, are included) according to the recent Pew Survey of Jewish Americans; 7% identify as Sephardic or Mizrahi as well as something else. Even In Seattle’s vibrant Sephardic community, the figure is 8%, reports the 2016 Seattle Jewish Community Study. And in Broward County, Florida, where a relatively large Sephardic population resides, the figure is 16.4% according to the 2016 Jewish Federation of Broward County Population Study.

To ensure the future of the Sephardic tradition for many generations to come, today’s young generation of Sephardic Jews must be prepared to confront these challenges—and also garner the support and financial resources of mainstream Jewish institutions. “It’s time for Sephardic Jews to stand up for themselves, start a Sephardic movement, and be recognized that we have a unique voice and needs, and a unique identity in the American Jewish experience,” said Marcus. “Only through our generation will it happen.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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