Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

Our Crowd
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 auctions, etc.

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 America.)

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 in America.

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 religious studies.

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 summer.

In contrast to the self-contained communal life they had left behind in Syria, they found themselves living among and socializing with non-Jews.

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” marriages.

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 blood.

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 families.

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 the disabled.

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 parents.

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 Syrians.

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.


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