A member of a Jewish family that came to the United States from Morocco in 1958, attorney Marc Bengualid grew up with “a great deal of Sephardic culture at home.” Most of the other Moroccan Jews who came here moved to the Upper East Side, but his family settled on the Upper West Side.
After college, Bengualid moved to Westchester, where he was a leader of a Sephardic minyan at the Young Israel of Scarsdale. “It wasn’t enough for me,” he said — he wanted a more intensive Sephardic experience. A year and a half ago, Bengualid and his young family decamped to the Upper East Side.
Ellie Cohanim, from an Iranian Jewish family that left its homeland in 1979, grew up in Queens’ Rego Park neighborhood, and, like many Jews with Iranian roots, in Great Neck. Cohanim, who works as a reporter for Shalom TV and in nonprofit management, lived for several recent years in Great Neck, sending her children to the Ramaz day school on the Upper East Side.
A year ago the Cohanim family moved to the Upper East Side.
Rabbi Richard Hidary, from a Syrian Jewish family, grew up, like many local Syrian Jews, in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. He attended Yeshivah of Flatbush, studied for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University and has fond memories of going to his grandmother’s house for Syrian-style Friday night meals. After high school, he lived in Israel several years.
For the last year he has served as the first rabbinic fellow of Congregation Shearith Israel – The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and lived on the Upper West Side.
The Bengualid, Cohanim and Hidary families are part of a growing number of Sephardic Jews who have settled in Manhattan in recent years. The growth on both sides of Central Park — and, to a lesser degree, further south in Manhattan — is fueled by a number of factors: the lure of day schools like Ramaz that have realized Sephardic students’ unique spiritual needs; the draw of the borough’s rich religious and cultural life; the desire of young Sephardic Jews to break out of their community’s old enclaves; and a growing anti-Semitism in France that has led to heightened emigration in recent years.
“There is a renaissance going on,” said Brigitte Dayan, a journalist with Moroccan Jewish roots who moved to the Upper West Side from Chicago 12 years ago. Kevin Benmoussa, a native of France with a Tunisian background who moved to the Upper West Side a decade ago, put it this way: “We can live a very good Sephardic life in Manhattan.”
A tangible sign of the growth is the 12-story Safra Community Center, which is currently under construction on East 82nd Street just off Lexington Avenue; with a sleek glass façade, it will house a spa, salon, café, exercise and rec rooms and day care facilities. Also on tap is a Sephardic heritage museum, focusing on Syrian Jews — a project of real estate magnate Joseph Sitt.
For its growing number of Sephardic students, Ramaz sponsors a daily Sephardic minyan; Manhattan Day School and the Heschel School have added Sephardic-oriented curricula. For younger students, there is the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan pre-school, which was launched in 2011.
The Sephardic influence is evident on the streets of the Upper East Side. Kosher food establishments offer such items as Persian chicken kebab at Prime Butcher Baker; Yemenite soup at 18, a glatt kosher restaurant; and melawach and shakshuka at the Nargilla Grill in Yorkville.
Now there is a choice of venues that offer Sephardic tefillah. In addition to the established Congregation Edmond J. Safra (the “Safra Synagogue”) on East 63rd Street near Central Park, and the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation two blocks from the East River on East 75th Street, there is Congregation Magen David, which grew from a minyan on the second floor of the 16th Street Synagogue into a new location in the West Village on Sullivan Street.
Rabbi Sion Setton, the YU-ordained spiritual leader of Magen David, said his congregants are attracted by the neighborhood’s “hip Jewish scene.”
“It seems to me that there are hundreds of Sephardic men, women and children who live in the downtown area, and that the numbers are rising,” Rabbi Setton said.
Such Orthodox congregations as Fifth Avenue Synagogue, Park East Synagogue and Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, all on the Upper East Side, offer separate prayer services for Sephardic members.
Many “want to pray among people who have the same customs,” said Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Marc Angel, who added that people have left his congregation to join ones that offer a nusach particular to their country of origin. He considers this a gain for the Jewish community. “I don’t consider it competition. Of course it’s good.”
While not all Sephardic Jews strictly follow halacha, they tend to be more traditional than their Ashkenazic peers, and belong to Orthodox synagogues.
In a breakthrough for the non-Orthodox, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side has since January sponsored a monthly Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, Bo-i Kallah; it features pan-Sephardic songs and poems (see story on page 38).
The Upper East Side’s intense Jewish atmosphere “has been wonderful for my kids,” Cohanim said. “They have a very strong Sephardi identity and that identity has been reinforced both at the Safra Synagogue and at the Ramaz school where they attend. Our community has a rich and ancient heritage, and many of us want to make sure that the beautiful Sephardi customs and culture get passed on to our children and grandchildren.”
Those customs and that culture have often been overlooked here, in a city dominated by Jews from Eastern European, Ashkenazic backgrounds. A New Yorker who thought “Jewish,” thought Yiddish, pastrami and “Fiddler on the Roof,” not Ladino, shavfka or the cafés of Old Cairo.
Yet, New York City’s Sephardic roots run deep, starting with the city’s first Jewish residents, 23 refugees from Recife, Brazil, who found refuge in Lower Manhattan in 1654. Then there were the refugees who came here from the Ottoman Empire before World War I and lived in “Little Syria” around Washington Street in Lower Manhattan. Or those who settled here, from across the Arab world, after waves of anti-Semitism following the creation of Israel in 1948 left them homeless and stateless.
The number of Sephardic Jews in Manhattan may be as high as about 36,000, said Pearl Beck, director of evaluation research at Ukeles Associates and lead author of the " Jewish Community Study of New York 2011: Geographic Profile,” sponsored by UJA-Federation.
Observers estimates that the number has risen steadily in recent decades, but the 2002 Community Study did not collect data on Manhattan's Sephardic population.
The figure is likely to keep rising, fed by newcomers from France, mostly members of Sephardic families who had moved there from northern Africa, and are now escaping the increasing anti-Semitism committed by Muslim immigrants from the same northern African countries.
“Nearly 75 percent” of French Jews polled by the Paris-based Siona organization of Sephardic French Jewry are considering emigrating, Haaretz reported last month.
“There is an exponential growth of French Sephardic immigrants to New York, for both religious and economic reasons,” said Dayan, a board member of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue. “The French [Jews] are moving, and they’re not all moving to Israel.”
About Manhattan’s Sephardic revival, Rabbi Angel said, “I would not have foreseen it.”
A member of a family with roots in Turkey and Rhodes who grew up in a Ladino-speaking home, he said that when he became spiritual leader in 1969 of Shearith Israel, there was “no other Sephardic minyan” in the borough. And little knowledge in the general Jewish community of Sephardic ways. “Thirty years ago, no one ever heard of bourekas.”
Today, the phyllo-filled pastry is a staple at many kosher restaurants.
A major mover of the area’s Sephardic revival is Lebanese-born Rabbi Elie Abadie, who is spiritual leader of the Safra Synagogue. He also founded the Sephardic Academy, and is behind the new Safra community center. (See story on page 34.)
Sephardic Jews said the Safra Synagogue and the Academy influenced their decisions to move to, or stay on, the Upper East Side. Young singles and families constitute most of the Sephardic growth in Manhattan; in the past, they would typically head for Manhattan during college or their first years after graduation, and then eventually return to Brooklyn or Great Neck.
“Considerable numbers are moving away from their tight-gripped social and economic environs … perhaps a sign of increased acculturation and separation among a new generation of American-born young people,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.
“The ones who move [to Manhattan] are more Americanized and cosmopolitan” than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations, Rabbi Angel said.
Some have familiar Sephardic food items delivered from Brooklyn. Some go back there or to Great Neck for Shabbat or holidays.
Marc Bengualid said he’s heard no criticism from other Sephardic Jews about his decision to move to the Upper West Side. “I know of people” — fellow members of the Sephardic community, he said, “who want to move here from Brooklyn.”