Preserving Sephardic Heritage in South Florida

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Mozelle Forman 

 

 

When thinking of Florida, we usually imagine sunny skies, azure seas, intersession vacation, and Passover family reunions.  We think of Miami, Sunny Isles, Turnberry, and the Fort Lauderdale airport.  We practically never think of Cooper City. We probably don’t even know where it is on the map.  Well, most of us have been missing the latest and greatest innovation in the Sephardic world, because Cooper City, which borders Hollywood, rated one of the safest and best places to raise a family in the United States, is the home of Yeshivat Torat Yosef, the first Sephardic yeshiva in the state of Florida.  Let’s get acquainted. 

 

With the apt motto of “Someplace Special,” Cooper City is one of the finest suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, with a population of 35,715 distributed over eight miles. Cooper City has the reputation of being one of the best places to live in Florida.  The city is bordered by Davie to the north, Pembroke Pines to the south, and Hollywood to the east.   Compared to much of Florida, Cooper City is a very recent development. The community was founded in 1959 by Morris Cooper, for whom the city is named. The community has steadily grown, annexing areas and continuing to build new housing developments. 

 

History Repeats for Syrian Emigrees 

 

The “emigration” and community growth in Cooper City almost identically mirrors the Syrian community’s initial migration to New York in 1892. The first Syrian Jews to arrive on the shores of the Lower East Side of Manhattan found there a Jewish infrastructure designed by the Ashkenazi Jews who had preceded them.  The Syrian emigrees were unaccustomed to the food, liturgy, and halachic differences of their fellow Jews, and with a strong desire to preserve their Syrian heritage and traditions through religious practices and customs, the Syrian emigrees united to form a synagogue, a burial society, and a Talmud Torah.  As the community prospered, they moved to the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn and began summering in Bradley Beach, where they once again convened a Sephardic minyan and summer day camp.  

  

Realizing that a Talmud Torah, with three hours of daily studies, was not sufficient to impart the heritage and customs of the community, Mr. Isaac Shalom, with the blessing of Chief Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, zt’l, spearheaded the movement that led to the formation of Magen David Yeshiva, the first of many illustrious institutions serving our community. From Brooklyn, the community expanded to the Jersey Shore, where, once again, the community created a Sephardic enclave with numerous synagogues, mikvaot, community centers, and most importantly, yeshivot.   

 

The incentive of preserving the cultural and halachic heritage of the Sephardic community has driven every relocation and expansion of our community.  The creation of Yeshivat Torat Yosef in Cooper City is the most recent endeavor in this movement.  Simply put, we do not change who we are because we have changed our zip code. 

 

Currently there are over 1,000 Sephardic families living in the Hollywood-Cooper City area and roughly 40 percent of all children attending the exemplary Ashkenazi yeshivot in the area are of Sephardic descent.  Mr. Shlomo Yashar, who moved to the area in 2017, has seen the Sephardic Jewish community grow exponentially, but he felt the void in his children’s education.  “While our children were receiving an excellent education at the local yeshivot, we recognized that an integral part of their heritage was not being addressed. There were attempts in the past to start a Sephardic yeshiva but they were not successful.  And while my older children did not have the opportunity to attend a Yeshiva steeped in Sephardic tradition, I am excited that, with the leadership of Rabbi Elbaz, our youngest daughter will be benefitting from attending the school.”   

 

Enter Rabbi David Elbaz 

 

In 2017 Rabbi David Elbaz was invited to join a Kollel in Florida. He made the move to Florida with his wife Jill and their four children (they have since been blessed with another child), with the blessings of their rabbinic advisors.  The Sephardic community infrastructure included three minyanim, a Sephardic sofer, a Sephardic branch of the chevra kadisha, and shatnez checking with Sephardic halachot. As there was no Sephardic yeshiva yet, Sephardic children, including the children of Rabbi and Mrs. Elbaz, attended Ashkenaz yeshivot.  These yeshivot welcomed the Sephardic students, provided them with an excellent education, and attempted to accommodate the student’s traditions, but they were able to do so only in a limited way.  

 

While attending their daughter’s kindergarten graduation, Rabbi and Mrs. Elbaz made a startling discovery.  The rabbi was looking at the roster of children in our daughter’s class.  As he read the names of the students to himself, he kept repeating ‘this name is Sephardic, this name is Sephardic’ over and over. When he was done reading, he realized that almost 60 percent of the class was Sephardic.   Rabbi Elbaz, no stranger to community dedication and leadership (his paternal grandfather Hacham Avraham Masoud learned with Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l,  in Egypt and his maternal grandfather, Hacham Sion Maslaton, zt”l, was the spiritual leader of Ahi Ezer)  looked at his wife and said, “We have to do something for the community.”  And the seeds of Yeshivat Torat Yosef were sown. 

 

A Beautiful Campus  

 

With the vision and vigor of this generation’s pioneers and the financial support of donors, Rabbi Elbaz set out, with the help of Shlomo Yashar, to find a home for the yeshiva that would serve the fast-growing Sephardic community in Hollywood, Florida.  “We had many disappointments, deals that fell apart at the last minute,” relates Mr. Yashar.  But after three years of intensive searching, with siyata dishmaya, Yeshivat Torat Yosef finally found its home on a ten-acre campus with a building that was already being used as a school, a soccer field, a football field, basketball and volleyball courts, and its very own lake.  Rabbi Elbaz says, “The property will allow us to grow with the community, offering summer day camp, recreation programs, a simcha hall, and perhaps in the future a synagogue as well.  We hope to make our campus the centerpiece of the community, providing recreation, education, and communal unity.” 

 

When entering the campus of Yeshivat Torat Yosef one is greeted by a sign that signifies the philosophy and defining principles of the school.  In bold letters the sign proclaims  

  להחזיר עטרה ליושנה “Restore the crown to its glory,” which was Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s  desire to save and preserve the Sephardic way of life.   In the oft quoted phrase and slogan, the crown in this metaphor refers to the communal pride Sephardic Jews should possess. Surrounding this refrain is the pasuk from Mishlei – “Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko” – train a child according to his ways, which is the educational principle on which the school is founded.  Rabbi Elbaz elaborates:  “We recognize that each child is unique and will learn in different ways and at different speeds.  We are not seeking out only A+ students.  We want to develop A+ human beings, with the academic skills and middot that will enable them to be successful in whatever path they choose in life.” 

 

Limudai Kodesh  and Secular Studies 

 

The school is governed by the regulations of the Florida Department of Education, with the school term beginning in late August and ending in early June.  The state emphasizes literacy, and developed guidelines in their “Just Read, Florida!” program based on the latest reading research that includes emphasis on oral language development, phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.  “We, therefore, have on our staff ‘fluency’ teachers for both the English and limudai kodesh departments that will work with students individually as they move up in grades to ensure that every child is mastering reading in both areas.”  The curriculum was designed after careful research of the curricula of other community schools in Brooklyn and with input from both rabbis and secular teachers.   Recognizing that there are older students who have not had the benefit of attending a yeshiva steeped in Sephardic heritage – especially the boys who do not have a foundation in keriah – an adjunct keriah program was created with a ta’amim teacher to instruct the boys on the proper way to read the Torah and haftara and sing pizmonim. 

Tuition at Yeshivat Torat Yosef, $14,500 for elementary school, is less costly than other yeshivot in the area.  There are numerous government grants and government programs for tuition assistance including The State of Florida’s Step Up program, which offers K-12 students who meet the income or other eligibility requirements scholarships worth an average of $7,700 to attend a private school that best meets their academic needs.  The yeshiva is committed to helping parents afford the tuition and will offer scholarships for families who may not be eligible for government grants.   

In late August of last year, the school opened its doors with 35 preschool students.  To date, there are 110 students registered for the Fall of 2023, which will comprise a pre-1a class and two first grade classes – one for boys and one for girls.  The plan is to grow the school as students grow – to add grades as the students advance and to hire teachers as needed.  The yeshiva has received numerous resumes of teachers planning to move to South Florida, and will only hire licensed teachers with advanced degrees.   

With their state-of-the-art campus, licensed teachers, and the strong curriculum, Yeshivat Torat Yosef has been recognized with accreditation by the State of Florida, the only yeshiva in South Florida able to make that claim. 

 

Hakarat HaTov for Outstanding Support   

 

“This is not an endeavor that I could have tackled alone,” concludes Rabbi Elbaz.  “As it was for our community in the past, it took vision, financial support, and the passion of those who believed in the project to make it happen.  I have been deeply touched by all those who have offered advice and encouragement and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Mr. Steven Safdieh who has been an invaluable support to our yeshiva and to me personally.”    

 

Yeshivat Torat Yosef has received wide-range support from community rabbis and lay leaders alike.  In a promotional video on behalf of the school Rabbi Eli Mansour said, “Sepharadim need to have their own yeshivot.  We have different halachot, different ta’amim, we read differently. We deprive our children of a very rich heritage if we don’t provide them with a tailor-made Sephardic oriented education.”  

 

In an interview with Rabbi Galimidi of the Safra Synagogue in Aventura, he emphasized that this project is a tremendous milestone for the Sephardic community of South Florida.  “Our minhagim are part of our common identity.  To educate a boy to step up to the teva to read from the Torah, say Shema, or recite the haftarah, guarantees the continuity of our traditions.  We are privileged and blessed to see this dream become a reality with the opening of Yeshivat Torat Yosef.”   

 

Mr. Irwin Mizrahi. an ardent supporter, believes that “the numerous Sephardic families who have moved to the Hollywood area must have a school that teaches our minhagim, our pizmonim, the te’amim, and history of our glorious heritage.  Our minhagim are the glue that keeps our community together and is the link to our grandparents.”  He generously dedicated the name of the school in memory of his father Joseph Mizrahi, a”h.  Mr. Joe Cayre, Mr. Harry Adjmi, and Mr. Jimmy Khezrie are also generous benefactors of the yeshiva, giving not only their financial help but sharing their wisdom and experience in building community institutions.  Mr. Saul Tawil, Mr. Ray Haber, and Mr. Ezra Erani, themselves founders and patrons of outstanding educational institutions in our community, have lent advice and financial support to the yeshiva as well.   

 

Open Invitation to Come See for Yourselves! 

 

Rabbi Elbaz invites those vacationing in South Florida to visit the campus of Yeshivat Torat Yosef, to witness for themselves the realization of a dream for the entire Sephardic community.  

For more information about Yeshivat Torat Yosef, please contact the yeshiva at toratyosefeducation@gmail.com or call Rabbi David Elbaz at 732- 856-3989.