Hacham Yom Tov Yedid Last Chief Rabbi of Halab

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OUR SYRIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY – A CENTURY OF ACCOMPLISHMENT

By: Sarina Roffé



We are over a century young and flourishing.

Jane Gerber, professor of Jewish history and director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at City University of New York, says that what distinguishes the New York/New Jersey Syrian Jewish community is that it has maintained its cohesiveness better than any other Diaspora Jewish community in the world. It has welcomed Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel, each group maintaining its distinctive features, while still blending into the broader Sephardic community.

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, mikvaot (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, and other events.

Arrival on the Lower East Side

The Syrian Jewish community in New York originally consisted of two groups; Jews from Aleppo, and Jews from Damascus. The first migration occurred in the opening years of the 20th century. At first, the two groups kept apart. The Aleppan Jews thought of themselves as more knowledgeable, largely due to Aleppo’s history in Syria as a center of Jewish learning. The Aleppans, or Halabis, followed the traditions of the ancient community of Aram Soba, as Aleppo was called. The Damascene Jews, or Shammies, prayed in a different house of worship, although the two groups lived side by side and socialized.

Arriving on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1907, Syrian Jews were rebuffed by their Ashkenazi co-religionists because they didn’t speak Yiddish, had vastly different culinary habits, and had not experienced the modernist religious ideas and secular educational ideals that had worked their way through Europe in the late 19th century. Nor were we accepted in New York’s existing Sephardic community, which was dominated by the upper-class members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on the
Upper East Side who had long since been settled in America.
So they built their own community.

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, and so most could not read or write when they arrived in America.

When the Syrian Jews came to America, they were limited in what they could do to support their families. Many became peddlers or shopkeepers, occupations that permitted them to observe Shabbat. They sold household items, linens, doilies, curtains, and tablecloths. Both commercial and family ties bound the immigrants from Aleppo with those who remained in Syria.

In 1911, a dozen or so Syrian Jews united under the name Kehillat Shaare Sedek and opened a synagogue on the Lower East Side. The Rodfeh Tzedek Burial Society was formed and took its first group of plots at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. A Talmud Torah (Torah school) for children opened from 3pm to 6pm daily and on Sunday mornings. The classes were taught by members of the community, most of them businessmen. There was no rabbinic leadership until the arrival in 1910 of Rabbi Yitzhak Shalom, zt”l, who helped and supported thousands of Aleppan immigrants as they established themselves in the New World. Rabbi Haim Tawil became Chief Rabbi, but he later returned to Jerusalem.

The Arabic-speaking Jews found solace and comfort in the kitchen of Rose Cohen Misrie, an immigrant from Beirut. Rose, and her Aleppan husband, Israel Misrie, opened the Egyptian Rose, a Lower East Side restaurant that was a haven for Syrian Jews arriving from the Levant. In addition to eating, there was talking, bargaining, trading, card games, and toleh (Arabic for backgammon). Rose spun her tales, and her storytelling made the restaurant feel like home. A different menu of Middle Eastern cuisine was prepared each day, and everyone ate what was prepared. The Egyptian Rose was the place to be, especially for men who came to New York without their families.

The Migration to Brooklyn

The Sea Beach line of the New York City transit system opened in 1920, providing public transportation to Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. After living on the Lower East Side, Syrian Jews began moving to Bensonhurst, where they founded synagogues, a Talmud Torah in 1925, and a ritual bath, on 67th Street near 20th Avenue.

The Damascene Jews were led by Rabbi Murad Maslaton, and they prayed at Ahi Ezer Synagogue on 64th St and 21st Ave until it opened its building on 71st Street, off Bay Parkway. The Aleppan Jews prayed at Magen David Synagogue, built in 1921, on 67th Street. The Egyptian Jews later formed Ahava d Ahaba.
The Rodfeh Tzedek Burial Society soon established a second cemetery at United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island.

As the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn grew, the members became assimilated into society, through dress, language, and basic education. However, they continued to nurture and preserve the heritage, values and culture of their community in Syria. And so, while community members did business in the general society, they operated within very clearly established parameters. Parents, concerned that their culture and religion would be compromised by secular influences, controlled social liaisons and marriages, although arranged marriages were no longer in vogue. Intermarriage with non-Jews was banned. Accepted moral values, including religious observance of kashrut and Shabbat, charity, hesed, and other mitzvot, were expected.

Until the late 1950s, most Syrian children attended public school, and boys received their Hebrew education from a Talmud Torah at the k’nees (synagogue). In the first and second generations, most parents did not consider a college education necessary or desirable for their children. Most sons went into family businesses, and so the argument for higher education as an economic necessity was weak. Parents did not want their children to be exposed to secular influences, which they realized could easily lead to assimilation.

A Flourishing Community is Born

Over time, the Syrian Jews opened more and more retail establishments, selling merchandise similar to what they had offered when they peddled door-to-door. The businesses were family operated, and the merchants favored employing other members of the community. Some Syrians banded together and formed wholesale establishments and began to manufacture clothing. Many opened stores at beach resorts along the East Coast where they sold souvenirs, jewelry, sweatshirts and T-shirts. Many merchants sold linens, doilies, handkerchiefs, and tablecloths. Atlantic City, New Jersey was a summer resort where many Syrian Jews had summer stores.

In 1933, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin of Jerusalem became the Chief Rabbi of this growing community. Rabbi Kassin had established a reputation as head of a Bet Din, a Kabbalist, a teacher and a scholar. He was also the son of the esteemed Rabbi Shaul Kassin, a Syrian rabbi who descended from a long, illustrious rabbinic dynasty. Rabbi Jacob’s wife, Mazal Hedaya, hailed from the famous Labaton rabbinic dynasty, and her father was the esteemed Rabbi Shalom Hedaya. Rabbi Kassin’s leadership and guidance was instrumental in the shaping of the Syrian and Sephardic community in Brooklyn.

During the first half of the 20th Century, weddings, and bar mitzvahs were simple, generally with the ceremony held in the synagogue and the reception held in the family home, consisting of food cooked by the women. Guests squeezed in and out like sardines, dancing to Arabic music and enjoying homemade Syrian pastries, all the while enjoying the homelike atmosphere and being among family and friends. One photo of the bride and groom recorded the event for posterity. Those who could afford it held wedding and bar mitzvah receptions in Ahi Ezer Congregation on 71st Street in Bensonhurst and hired professional musicians and a photographer.

Many Syrian Jewish families who hosted receptions in their homes purchased food from Salem Catering, which was owned by my grandparents, Esther and Selim Salem. (Esther, incidentally, is the younger sister of the Egyptian Rose). In the 1940s, the couple built a commercial kitchen in the backyard garage of their home on 63rd Street, just off 21st Avenue. There were huge ovens, trays, and freezers to store the food. The family’s seven children, Esther’s younger brother Joseph, and Rabbi Abraham Salem lived in the house. The basement was converted into a storage area for gallons of pickles and imported Syrian spices.

Theirs was the first kosher Syrian catering available for the small community. The Salem’s catered weddings, bar mitzvahs, sebits (lunches) after Saturday morning services, and numerous parties throughout the growing Syrian Sephardic Jewish community in Bensonhurst. Members of the Sephardic community would trek up the narrow side alley to the Salem’s backyard kitchen, especially in preparation for holidays and special events, to purchase their goodies. The smells emanated from the kitchen and greeted people like a breath of fresh air.

Summer vacations in Bradley Beach, along the New Jersey shore, became commonplace, as hundreds of families rented or purchased summer
homes there.

During World War II, many men in the community served in the military, some of them losing their lives. The streets of Bensonhurst were devoid of young men. Many young men also served in the Korean War, and later in Vietnam.

Concerned about intermarriage, Rabbi Jacob Kassin authored a takanah (edict) in 1935 against marrying converts. Reissued in 1946, 1972, 1984, and 2006, the takanah is read on Shabbat Shuvah each year in community congregations. It is signed by every community rabbi and organization president, and there are consequences for those who marry outside the religion. The edict is widely credited with keeping the intermarriage rate in the community at remarkably low levels.

In 1945, money was raised for a community center which opened in the 1950s on Avenue P and Stillwell Avenue in Bensonhurst, but it was soon taken over by Magen David Yeshiva.

After World War II, Syrians expanded from the garment industry into the electronics business and opened chains of stores like Nobody Beats the Wiz and wholesale outlets like Soundesign. Republic National Bank was owned by Aleppans, as were chain stores like Duane Reade, Rainbow Shops, and others. Syrian importers sell to K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and JC Penney stores.

The Syrian Jews made their next move in the late 1940s, when the wealthiest members of the community moved to the Ocean Parkway section of Brooklyn, where they purchased private homes. In just a few years, the entire community clustered around Ocean Parkway, which was later dubbed by Aleppan author Joseph A. D. Sutton,
“Aleppo in Flatbush.”

The Syrian Day School

Most community children attended public school with fellow Syrian and Sephardic Jews and the Italian children in the neighborhood. By the mid-1950s,
there was a widespread feeling throughout the community that the Talmud Torah education offered was not sufficient to satisfy the children’s need for religious education. This sentiment eventually led to the notion of the Syrian day school, which was then nothing short of a revolutionary innovation.

Isaac Shalom, a community leader who had worked with the Ozar Hatorah organization opening Jewish schools in Iran and Morocco, pushed for the opening of Magen David Yeshiva. Chief Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, whose own children attended public school, worked with Shalom on this project, which was met with fierce opposition by many community members who struggled financially and were concerned about the cost of private education. Additionally, people were generally happy with the education provided by the public schools. Nevertheless, despite the opposition, Shalom was determined, and he expanded the yeshiva one class at a time.

During the late 50s and 60s, the civil rights movement resulted in busing and desegregation of schools, and a dramatic change in the racial balance in the public schools. As a direct result, enrollment in the yeshivas grew. By then the Syrian community had built two schools – Magen David Yeshiva, which was primarily Aleppan, and Ahi Ezer, which was primarily Damascene. The first Sephardic Girls School opened on 70th Street in the 1960s, and this school eventually became Ahi Ezer Yeshiva on Ave X.

By the late 1960s, most children in the community attended yeshivas, marking a turning point in the religious education of the Brooklyn Syrian community. Lacking professional educators, the yeshivas relied on Ashkenazi teachers. This gradually influenced many Syrian Jews to become more observant than the previous generation, but also had the effect of compromising the community’s Judeo-Arabic culture. Influenced by their religious education, women began to attend synagogue services more frequently than their mothers did.

In the years following the creation of Israel, there was genuine concern for the welfare of the remaining Jews in Syria. Isaac Shalom and Rabbi Kassin joined forces to form the Near East Jewish Aid Society. They obtained funds from the Joint Distribution Committee to help the Jewish population in Syria, and Shalom persisted in these efforts in the 1950s under the auspices of
Ozar Hatorah.

In 1960, the community opened Shaare Zion Congregation, a large synagogue with a magnificent domed sanctuary and social hall, on Ocean Parkway between Avenues T and U. Rabbi Jacob, his son Rabbi Shaul, his assistant Rabbi Abraham Hecht, and his son-in-law, Rabbi Baruch Ben Haim, officiated at thousands of weddings at Shaare Zion. The community continued to use the landmark Magen David Congregation on 67th Street for funerals and Shabbat services. Shaare Zion was expanded at the end of the 20th century, and now accommodates social events for up to 1,000 people.

In 1992, over 4,000 Jewish refugees from Syria were absorbed into the community. The presence of the new Syrian immigrants caused a resurgence of Judeo-Arabic culture, and fluent Arabic was once again heard on the streets of Brooklyn.

The community shifted its summer vacations from Bradley Beach to Deal, New Jersey and its surrounding communities. Winter vacations were also planned, with large groups taking over hotels during winter school breaks or Passover.

Adjusting for the 21st Century

The Old World attitude toward higher education gradually
changed, and it is now regarded as a basic educational necessity for competing in a global economy. The community adjusted itself and became more professionalized in order to meet the needs of the modern economy, and it now boasts artists, dentists, teachers, accountants, financial analysts, psychiatrists, physicians, surgeons, attorneys, writers, decorators, real estate professionals, photographers, social workers, and architects. Many of these professionals remain within the community, which provides their primary client base.

Now in the second decade of the
21st century, our community maintains its Orthodoxy with a solid base of knowledge and understanding of our faith, customs, and traditions. Our community is overcoming its natural tendency to be apolitical and content living and socializing among our own. During the last three decades, we have become more politically engaged, exercising our leverage and bringing our votes to bear on government. We serve on community boards, on school boards, and as elected officials. Our members are tightly linked to institutions in Israel and have connections with Syrian and Sephardic communities all over the world.

The community is fortunate to have excellent lay leadership, a never ending supply of volunteers who serve on boards and committees, and who willingly give of their time for their synagogues, for their children’s schools, and to help the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled.

During the past century, the community built an impressive infrastructure of Jewish life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, which has expanded to the Deal, NJ area. Our community has a demographic balance – from the superrich to the poor, from the educated to the blue collar workers, young and old – and a strong identity steeped in religion, culture and tradition. We can take pride in our glorious past, and in our ability to transplant ourselves on these shores with our faith and traditions intact, and we can look forward to an even more glorious future as we continue to build on the impressive accomplishments of our forebears and follow their example of unbridled devotion to Torah, family, and community.

This article was adapted from Sarina Roffé’s new book, Branching Out From Sepharad: The Kassin Rabbinic Dynasty, which is expected to be released before the end of the year.