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THE SEPHARDIC HERITAGE MUSEUM: SAVING LIVES, PRESERVING SOULS

By: Kelly Jemal Massry



As a community, we so value the Sephardic Heritage Museum because of its role in preserving our history. But what many of us neglect to realize is that the museum, pioneered by Mr. Joe Sitt and Rabbi Raymond Sultan, is urgently trying to preserve our present as well.

Recently, Cabinet Minister and Knesset Member Zev Elkin visited from Israel and expressed his appreciation to the staff of the Sephardic Heritage Museum for the life-saving work they are doing on behalf of Syrian and Yemenite Jews. Not only have they helped two Jewish families leave Aleppo, they’ve also aided Jews amidst the turmoil in Yemen. A February 2015 New York Times article entitled Persecution Defines Life for Yemen’s Remaining Jews details just how unfortunate the situation in Yemen has become. “The last of Yemen’s once numerous Jews…have seldom been so threatened and had so few protectors,” the article states.

The threat comes from the Houthi militants who rule the territory where these few Yemenite Jews live. Driven by hatred, these rebels do not hesitate to employ Holocaust-era language like “dirty Jew” or see us as sub-human. Their influence is particularly strong in the cities of Raida and Sana’a, the latter of which is Yemen’s capital. Jews live under house arrest there and are routinely jailed, kidnapped or worse. The government of Yemen is no match for these terrorists and all hope seemed lost – until the Sephardic Heritage Museum’s personnel got involved.

“When we heard about what was going on, we made efforts to get these Jewish families out,” says Rabbi Raymond Sultan. “It was not easy. The airports were being bombed and there was no access – but be’ezrat Hashem we were successful.” Ultimately,
the men of the Sephardic Heritage Museum managed to safely and clandestinely get
32 Jews out of Yemen. Working with the Satmar community and both the American and Israeli governments, they brought some Jews to the United States and some Jews to Israel to
begin again.

The museum also proved to be of tremendous help in preserving the Jewish cemetery of Gallipoli, Turkey. Just when the cemetery was on the brink of destruction, Rabbi Sultan of the Sephardic Heritage Museum intervened. He met with Turkish emissaries and got guarantees that the graves would not be overrun and decimated.

A similar scenario was unfolding within the city of Algiers. As Rabbi Sultan tells it, there are 31 Jewish cemeteries in Algiers, dating back 500 years. Very holy rabbis are buried there – the Ribash, the Tashbatz, and Rabbi Efrayim Alkaya being just a few. Still, because Algiers is an Arab country many of the Jews who were born there moved to France, which controlled much of that Middle Eastern area, including Algiers. 

In 1960, the French pulled out of Algiers but promised to continue to pay for the upkeep of the Jewish cemeteries there. In 2015, the French, however, reneged on that vow and neglected to supply the money needed to maintain these holy sites. The Algerian government got fed up with the situation and issued a proclamation: If the bones were not moved in six month’s time, the cemeteries would be demolished. In response, the French government offered to make room for these graves in the cemeteries of France, guaranteeing those who did move the bones that the deceased would have plots there. Of course that didn’t help at all because, according to Jewish law, transporting bones is not allowed. Even if the demand was carried out, with the rationalization that the government was giving no other choice, it would be impossible to move over 4,000 graves to France! Backed into a corner, the Asra Kadisha, an organization in charge of taking care of endangered graves around the world, asked Rabbi Sultan for his help.

Not long after, Rabbi Sultan had the opportunity to attend a meeting in Manhattan at which the French President, Francois Hollande, would be speaking. He planned to make the most of their shared space and beseech the President to influence the situation. But before he could do so, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, approached him. The Chief Rabbi of France would make a decision about what to do with the bones, he said. This did not sit comfortably with Rabbi Sultan. “Right away, I sent a message to the people of Israel to put pressure on the Chief Rabbi of France to make the right decision,” he said.

Rabbi Sultan did get a chance to speak with the French president that night. He told him: “Mr. President, Algiers is a big problem.” “I know,” Hollande reassured him. “We are going to help.” “Help?!” Rabbi Sultan retorted. “You are the cause of the problem! The French has backed out, and that’s why we have this problem to begin with!” Unfazed, the French President again promised him, “We are going to help.” Before leaving, he came over to Rabbi Sultan again to say goodbye with a handshake and a smile. And be’ezrat Hashem, two weeks later, the French government announced that they would indeed take back the responsibility for these Algerian cemeteries. Rabbi Sultan and his team at the Sephardic Heritage Museum see the turn-around as nothing less than a miracle.

Of course hishtadloot– human participation – was involved as well. If not for the concentrated effort of the people heading the museum and if not for the focused pressure exerted at Rabbi Sultan’s request, such a drastic reversal of fortune may not have occurred. “These are some recent efforts of the Sephardic Heritage Museum,” says Rabbi Sultan. “We came across these situations while preserving our community’s history and we could not ignore them – so we got involved. It’s all thanks to the community and Hashem’s support that these missions were able to be successful.”