Close to one million Jews lived in an area stretching from Morocco to Iran as late as the middle of the twentieth century. Their sojourn in the Middle East dates back to ancient times. Many of these communities housed refugees expelled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, forming original cultures that blended indigenous and newer Iberian cultural elements. Over the course of the centuries, each community developed highly original indigenous civilizations while also sharing many cultural bonds with other Middle Eastern Jewries. All the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities experienced drastic uprooting after World War II with the emergence of independent Arab national states. Under conditions of flight and expulsion, Sephardic Jews were precipitously dispersed; their traditional ways of life and communal records and artifacts were either destroyed or widely scattered. Today, Sephardic Jews are concentrated in Israel, France, the United States and Canada, with smaller Sephardi enclaves in South America, forming subcultures within the majority Ashkenazic Jewish communities.
The contemporary American Sephardi community is a mosaic of communities composed of Jews from Syria, Iran, the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union, as well as of former Israelis of Middle Eastern background. Smaller subgroups of Afghani, Greek, Yemenite and Moroccan Jews also retain their former liturgical and familial traditions. Collectively the several communities constitute approximately ten percent of American Jewry.
The American Sephardi Federation (ASF) was formed in 1973 with the goal of providing unity to a fragmented and widely dispersed “minority within a minority” in American Jewry. ASF exists to preserve and support the history of all Sephardic communities as an integral part of the Jewish experience and Jewish heritage. This goal has been furthered dramatically when ASF became a partner of the Center for Jewish History and began collecting archival and printed as well as audio and visual documentation of the rich and extremely diverse American Sephardi past. It joined with Sephardic House in the introduction of an annual Sephardic Film Festival, while offering academic conferences, lectures and concerts to the wider public. Its archival holdings are constantly expanding and include the papers of the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, the records of the Yemenite Jewish Association of America as well as of the first synagogue in America, The Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel. Its growing collection includes private collections and the digitization of several Ladino rare books. (Its current projects include the creation of an oral history library of the American Sephardi immigrant experience; the digitization of photographic collections of the hundreds of abandoned synagogues of Turkey and Morocco; the recent acquisition of photographic collections of Ethiopian Jewish life and of the Moroccan Jewish immigrant experience in Israel.) Its multifaceted activities give voice to a will to celebrate the history and culture of two thousand years of Jewish creativity in the many diasporas of the Mediterranean world.