by Sarina Roffé
Some of us own Jordache, Sassoon, Century 21
Department Stores, and the Children’s Place. Our most famous names are
comedian Jerry Seinfeld, actor Daniel Hedaya, singer Paula Abdul, interior
designer Joseph Nahem, and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.
But ask Jane Gerber, professor of Jewish history and
director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at City University of New
York, and she will say that what distinguishes Brooklyn’s 80,000-member
Syrian Jewish community is that it has maintained its cohesiveness better
than any other Diaspora Jewish community in the world.
Religiously, we are Orthodox, ranging from “Modern”
to “Ultra,” and have great respect for our rabbis. Our religious
infrastructure is second to none.
Besides the typical community cemetery, ritual
baths, and dozens of synagogues, we have over a dozen schools (yeshivot
where both a religious and secular curriculum are taught), community
centers, social service programs, senior citizen housing, programs for
seniors and youth, job training centers, job banks and referrals, a drug
education program, a medical referral service, a small business agency, and
much more. Much of this infrastructure has been built with community funds,
diligently raised from an endless stream of bake sales, luncheons, Chinese
According to the last major article on us—Zev
Chafets’ October 14, 2007 New York Times Magazine cover story, “SY
Empire”—our communal cohesion derives from a 1935 rabbinic ruling, or
takana, that forbids us to marry individuals who convert to Judaism
solely for the purpose of marriage. The takana, which is
widely misunderstood, needs to be understood in context.
Arriving on the Lower East Side in 1907, Syrian Jews
were rebuffed by their Ashkenazi co-religionists because we didn’t speak
Yiddish, possessed vastly different food ways, and had not experienced the
modernist religious ideas and secular educational ideals that had worked
their way through Europe in the late 19th century.
(In Syria, the men had received no more than an
eighth grade religious education, with very little instruction in secular
subjects. The women in the predominantly Muslim society were protected and
did not attend school; most could not read or write when they arrived in
Nor were we accepted in New York’s existing
Sephardic community, dominated by the upper-class members of the Spanish
Portuguese Synagogue on the Upper East Side who had long since been settled
So my people set about building their own community.
We created a burial society and opened two synagogues, one for Aleppan Jews
and one for Damascene Jews. Both boys and girls attended public schools and
the community opened an afterschool Talmud Torah to teach them Hebrew and
The men began as peddlers, selling whatever they
could to pay the rent and put food on the table. Eventually they opened
retail establishments, often outside the Jewish world of New York City. My
own family had a retail store in Watch Hill, R.I., where we went every
In contrast to the self-contained communal life they
had left behind in Syria, they found themselves living among and socializing
In Syria, converts to Judaism had been virtually
non-existent. But over our first quarter-century in America, more than a
dozen members of the community married non-Jews who, it seemed, converted to
Judaism not out of genuine love of Torah but merely in order to marry. To
prevent such a violation of traditional Jewish law, in 1935 the Sephardic
Rabbinic Council issued its takana forbidding all such “conversion”
The takana was based on an edict issued in
1927 in Buenos Aires by Rabbi David Setton and still in effect there.
Similar takanot are in effect in Mexico, Panama, and Brazil. In our
community, the takana was initially limited to us Syrians, but over
time it has been expanded to include other Sephardic Jews who had moved into
our realm and agreed to accept it.
Those who don’t understand it call the takana
a violation of Jewish law (halacha)—despite the fact that the
Argentine version was upheld by a Sephardic rabbinic court in Jerusalem in
1938. Critics also wrongly accuse us of using it to assure a purity of
In fact, our takana goes along with the
Argentine version in accepting righteous converts who undergo an Orthodox
conversion in Israel. Likewise, an Orthodox conversion that takes place
prior to meeting one’s future spouse (or showing an intention to marry) must
be deemed legal. Finally, we accept the conversion of adopted children.
There is no question that the takana plays an
important role in our community. It has been reissued periodically, each
time with new consequences. These include (but are not limited to) being
forbidden to receive honors or hold lifecycle events in our synagogues and
to be buried in the community cemetery.
Lest anyone forget it, the takana hangs in
every synagogue and is read aloud on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur. Moreover, the community as a whole acts as enforcer: Marriage to
a convert results in social isolation.
Has it been effective? At a time when more than half
of all American Jews are marrying outside the faith, our rabbis estimate
that our intermarriage rate is less than two percent. No one doubts that it
has helped keep our community together.
Since the takana was issued, the community
has prospered even as it has maintained its integrity.
It took us two generations to build our own yeshivas
and move away from public education. We also began to understand the value
of higher education. Today, most of the men and the women finish college. We
have a professional class that provides a broad array of services that
include doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, engineers, college
professors, and teachers, to name a few.
We have invested in our community and in our homes
and yes, as the New York Times has reported, some homes have high
real estate value in prime locations. We have our super-rich. But they are
not the norm.
I know that a significant number of people in our
community live below the poverty line and receive social services from
Sephardic Bikur Holim, our social service agency. Many of the recipients are
Sephardic immigrants who have had difficulty adjusting to life in America,
but most are still Syrian Jews—especially the elderly or those with large
While virtually all parents send their children to a
yeshiva, most also receive scholarships, which are subsidized through heavy
fundraising and donations from the more well-off members of the community.
Public education is simply not seen as an option for our children.
Many of the women in our community work, or have
part time careers while their children are young. Growing up, my mother and
all 15 of my aunts worked. Some had part-time household help; others,
full-time or no help at all.
Rich or poor, religious or not, the women in our
community pride themselves on maintaining their homes, their health, and
their appearance, while at the same time raising large families. I have been
married for 35 years and have always worked.
It is the leadership and extensive communal
infrastructure that have made us so successful, providing the services we
need to be comfortable with who we are—a community with unique traditions
that developed from centuries of living in the Arab world.
We are Arab Jews. Although, unlike the East European
ultra-orthodox in other parts of Brooklyn, we have assimilated to American
society in terms of language, dress, and education, we have proudly
maintained our values. Most of us are superstitious and believe in
protecting ourselves from the evil eye and from those who may be jealous of
our successes. We have a tendency to be apolitical, to be happy living and
socializing among our own.
Why? Under Ottoman Turkish rule, Jews (like
Christians) lived as dhimmi, a protected but second-class people who
enjoyed religious autonomy and a measure of self-government. But we enjoyed
no public services or education, and when it came to court, the word of a
Muslim had to be taken over the word of a Jew.
We learned not to call attention to ourselves as
Jews; to live by the rules and survive, observing our religion in relative
peace. But that apolitical philosophy, which we carried to America, meant
that we couldn’t, like other ethnic communities, leverage public dollars in
return for supporting elected officials.
During the last two decades, we have tried hard to
become more politically engaged, exercising our franchise and bringing our
votes to bear on government. We serve on community boards in Brooklyn and
one of us is mayor of Deal.
For years I have served on the board of the
Sephardic Community Federation (SCF)—a body formed to foster voting as well
as to work with elected officials on grants and legislation that might
benefit our community. The SCF also works with other organizations on
educational reform. But such involvement does not come naturally to us.
Our community is lucky to have excellent lay
leadership, a never ending supply of volunteers who serve on boards and
committees, volunteer in their synagogues or their children’s schools, and
give willingly of their time to help the poor, the sick, the elderly, and
In the early 1990s, volunteers responded to the
persecution of Jews in Syria by forming the Committee for the Rescue of
Syrian Jews, and successfully lobbied for them to be permitted to immigrate.
In the spring of 1992, the community organized an airlift, obtained funding,
established housing for over 4,000 refugees, and enrolled children in
schools, all within a matter of weeks. The Jewish Agency estimates that only
230 Jews remain in Syria.
It is hard to overestimate the embarrassment caused
to the community by the arrest of three of the community’s leading
rabbis—most importantly Chief Rabbi Saul Kassin—on charges that they had
laundered money through their discretionary funds. (It is common practice
for our rabbis to maintain such funds to help those in need.) Rabbi Isaac
Dwek, father of the FBI informant responsible for the arrests, denounced his
son’s actions in his synagogue.
Adding insult to injury, Sam E. Antar, the community
member who in 1990 pleaded guilty in the Crazy Eddie consumer electronics
fraud case, told the Forward September 4:
“You have to understand something—the way this
community survived when they got expelled from Spain in 1492 was to maintain
insularity. The same insularity also protects a subculture of crime that
goes on…. People use religion as a shield; they use it as a wall of false
integrity to enable crime to exist.”
But all the accused are innocent until proven
guilty, and I would like to say a word on behalf of Saul Kassin. Years ago,
I personally researched his family tree; he belongs to the oldest rabbinical
dynasty on record, dating to 1540. His father, Jacob S. Kassin, the first
chief rabbi, began serving the community in 1933. Rabbi Jacob performed the
wedding ceremony for my husband and me, our siblings, and both of our
His intimate knowledge of my family as fellow
Syrians with a recorded and verifiable family history, as well as the
research I was conducting, provided me with personal access to his son. I
conducted hours of interviews with him and I found him to be a learned,
humble, and highly ethical man devoted solely to helping others—a little
rough around the edges but soft of heart.
I also found him naïve about the ways of today’s
secular world. I want to go on record as saying I don’t believe he is
guilty, but it is also easy for me to imagine how this 87-year-old could
have become involved in a money-laundering scheme without knowing that he
was doing something wrong. I believe he only wants to help his fellow
I have been as embarrassed as the rest of my
community by the arrests, but all groups have their bad apples. Already, the
attention has resulted in some needed reforms, such as annual audits of
charitable organizations. Still, rather than being ashamed of ourselves, we
have every reason stand up tall and be proud of our history, our culture,
and our otherness.