Sephardic In The Heights
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Sephardic In The Heights

A half-century after its start, YU’s Sephardic Studies Program, mirroring demographic changes, is thriving.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

When Yeshiva University Vice President Dr. Herbert C. Dobrinsky co-founded the Sephardic Studies Program in 1964, he traveled across the U.S. to recruit a meager seven students.

“I don’t know how a nice Ashkenazi boy like me got involved in all this, but once we started, there was no going back,” said Dobrinsky.

Today, a half-century after the program began, it now boasts more than 300 undergraduate men and women. Over the past 15 years, the size of the program has doubled. In the recent quadrennial graduation from the YU rabbinical seminary (REITS), a record number of Sephardic rabbis (17) received ordination.

The growth of the program is due in large part to the recruitment efforts of Rabbi Moshe Tessone, the program’s director since 2001. Traveling to the day schools and high schools with the largest Sephardic populations, Tessone has been making “inroads” into the various communities. Today, the overwhelming majority of students come from Iranian, Syrian, Moroccan and Bukharian descent, with about 20 percent coming from Iraqi and Yemenite backgrounds.

“We’ve been recruiting largely from Magen David in Brooklyn, Yeshivah of Flatbush and Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal,” said Tessone. “When we visit, we show their students that what they can get at YU in terms of an active Sephardic community simply doesn’t exist elsewhere.”

YU hasn’t just been going to students — Sephardic students have been coming to YU as well. Last year, a cohort of 40 high school sophomores and juniors from Beit Yaacov Escola in Sao Paulo, Brazil, came to visit YU for the day. Of the group, four decided to pursue their undergraduate education at YU.

“The Sephardi community on campus became my community,” said Isaac Harari, native-Spanish speaking student from Panama. Harari attended the Hebrew Academy of Panama and decided to attend primarily because of the significant Sephardi life on campus. “I am able to stay in for Shabbat and observe my minhagim [customs]. Since I am already so far away from home, that is very important.”

The significant growth of the program mirrors the evolving demographics of the American Sephardic community. In 1964, a New York Times front-page article pronounced the American Sephardi community on the brink of extinction. At the time, the majority of Sephardic Jews in America were of Spanish-Portuguese or Judeo-Spanish origin. In the 1960s and ’70s, Jews from Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran began emigrating to the U.S. in large numbers. The shifting face of the American Sephardic community reflected in the on-campus Sephardic community.

“It became more important than ever to provide a place on campus for these students to preserve their folkways and traditions,” said Rabbi Dobrinsky.

Much of Sephardi life on campus is coordinated by the newly appointed Edmond J. Safra Sgan Mashgiach, Rabbi Simon Basalely, hired through a three-year grant from the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. In his first year on the job, Rabbi Basalely, who comes from a Persian background, ran minyanim in the Sephardic Beit Midrash three times daily and coordinated Shabbat events and programming to accommodate and enhance Sephardi life on campus.

“My goal for the program is to effectively integrate our Sephardi students into the broader undergraduate population,” said Rabbi Basalely. “In the past, Sephardic students have sometimes felt out of things, especially the international students who are coming from radically different cultures to begin with.”

Rabbi Basalely has worked to accommodate Sephardi students in “small ways.” “For example, a lot of Sephardi students didn’t like to eat in the cafeteria on Shabbat. I made a push for more Sephardic food and more Sephardic songs during Shabbat meals to make them feel more at home.”

Not only were his efforts successful, the Ashkenazi students on campus started looking forward to “Shabbat dinner with a Sephardi flavor.”

“You wouldn’t believe how much the other students enjoyed the Moroccan cigars and the extra hummus,” said the rabbi. “When we sang Sephardic songs like, ‘Nagila’ and ‘Habibi,’ Ashkenazi students were voluntarily filling in the next stanza.”

Jason Vessal, a junior whose family emigrated from Iran in the late-1970s, has reconnected to his Sephardi heritage through the campus programming.

“I went to public school my whole life and I never imagined I would end up at Yeshiva University,” said Vessal. But after spending a year at Bar-Ilan University after high school, he changed his mind. “I met Rabbi Basalely on the first day of school — he had compiled a list of all the Sephardi students. He reached out to me, and invited me to the Sephardi daily minyan.”

For Vessel, the invitation marked the beginning of “re-embracing his Sephardic roots.” He’s now a regular in the Sephardi Beit Midrash and at Sephardi Shabbat programming. “I feel like I found the community I almost lost,” said Vessel.

Downtown, the Sephardi life at Stern College for women is active as well. Rabbi Tessone teaches a weekly Sephardic halacha class at Stern that attracts both Sephardi and Ashkenazi students. “The Ashkenazi students are curious,” said Rabbi Tessone. “They see how passionate the Sephardi women are about their heritage, and they want to know more.”

Stern women also travel uptown for Sephardic events hosted on the men’s campus. More notably, however, is when the men come visit the women.

“The most popular Shabbaton of the year is the Sephardi Shabbaton on the Stern campus,” said Rabbi Tessone. “It was sold out faster than any other Shabbaton. Over 300 students participated, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.” And the popularity of the event was “not just because of the Sephardi girls,” Rabbi Basalely added.

“By the end of the Shabbaton, the whole room was singing pizmonim [traditional Sephardi songs] together,” said Rabbi Tessone.” “If you closed your eyes, you could have been back in Morocco.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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