Notwithstanding the dangers and risks of technology, it also offers us great opportunities when harnessed for the right purposes. And while there are plenty of inappropriate sights and sounds in cyberspace, it features many sights and sounds of holiness, as well.
Hazzan Faraj Samra is young, busy internist who is also deeply involved in learning and practicing hazzanut since he was a child in Damascus, Syria. Seeing the wonders of modern technology, Faraj sensed a valuable educational opportunity to perpetuate our sacred cantorial heritage by teaching Sephardic hazzanut online. Hazzan Samra received encouragement from the founders of Sephardicpizmonimproject.org, a website that provides recordings of Sephardic hazzanut along with relevant texts, photos of ancient and contemporary Sephardic synagogues from around the world, and historical manuscripts. Driven by his love for hazzanut and the encouragement of his colleagues, in 2009 he launched Sephardichazzanut.com, a website dedicated to helping people who wish to learn to become a hazzan or read the Torah. It features all the tefilot (prayers) of Shabbat and holidays, including Selihot and the High Holidays, as well as the entire Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim.
From Damascus to Brooklyn
Faraj grew up in Sham (Damascus), at a time when the Syrian government allowed Jews to study Tanach, but not other books. He learned the ta’amim (cantillation of the Torah reading) under Hacham Eli Khalife, who now lives in Flatbush, in Knis Ktab Duer, one of the old Damascan synagogues. In 1992, when Faraj was 10 years old, his family moved to Brooklyn, where he studied at Yeshivat Ateret Torah. Every Friday the boys studied ta’amim with Hacham Jack Maslaton, the gifted baal koreh (Torah reader) of Ahi Ezer Congregation.
As a new arrival from Syria he participated in the children’s choir of SLC, which at the time was housed on E. 7th Street, at the site of what is now the Ahi Ezer Senior Citizen Center. The choir was run under the direction of Hazan Ari Ovadia. Faraj also sang in the special choirs that performed for Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and others when they came to Brooklyn. He was given the special privilege of participating in a class for six months given by the renowned hacham and hazzan, Rafael Elnadav, zt”l. Hacham Elnadav taught the boys old and complex Turkish pizmonim, which Faraj believes helped him immensely in his early training and preparation to be the type of hazzan that he is today
The Discovery of a Prodigy
After Faraj’s bar mitzvah, he read the Torah at Ahi Ezer on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as at Shevet Ahim, and at Ahi Ezer Avenue X, he was permitted to read the complete Parasha. However, it was at Shaare Zion where Faraj Samra was really “discovered.” The first week that Faraj read for Minha of Shabbat at Shaare Zion there Hacham Shaul Kassin told him how much he enjoyed his reading, and would he please read in the Annex each Shabbat. Hazan Samara was 15 years old at the time, a student at Yeshiva of Flatbush.
Faraj continued nurturing his passion for Sephardic hazzanut, listening to the traditional tunes and making recordings. He studied in Yeshiva University under Hazzan Moshe Tessone, and became the regular ba’al koreh at Bnai Yosef. Ten years ago, a first year medical student, he began serving as hazzan on Shabbatot at Bnai Yosef during the summers, when many of the regular hazzanim move to New Jersey. He credits the synagogue’s main hazzanim, Moshe Yedid and Albert Cohen, as well as Hazzanim Moshe Mustacci, Yehiel Nahari and Moshe Tessone, for helping him hone his skills as he moved from the position of Baal Koreh to becoming the Hazan of Mikdash Eliyahu Synagogue.
At the Cutting Edge of Sephardic Hazzanut
Faraj worked as a tutor and bar mitzvah teacher, but decided the time was ripe to reach out on a much larger scale. Thus the website sephardichazzanut was born. The project started with recordings of the Torah reading and Haftarot, the various Maqamot and a Hazanut section. Faraj’s latest project is Tehillim, adding recordings of several new chapters each month. Sephardichazzanut.com now features over 1400 recordings, and attracts visitors from over 100 countries and 1700 cities across the globe.
Hazzan Samra says that he finds the project immensely gratifying. (In fact, his wife Minna calls the website his “child.”) He receives emails from hazzanim in Eretz Yisrael who tell him how useful the site is in their preparation, as well as from Sephardic Jews in remote areas where there are no Sephardic community, who use the site so their sons can read the Torah and Haftarah on their bar mitzvah in accordance with their own Minhag( tradition). He has also been contacted by conversos in Costa Rica, a member of a new synagogue in South America who uses the site so he can read the Torah for his congregation, and the list goes on.
Sephardichazzanut.com is playing a leading role in the revitalization of the ancient Sephardic cantorial tradition, proving that modern-day technology can be used to strengthen our connection to our past. Hazzan Samra invites you to visit his website, take a tour through the rich tradition of Sephardic hazzanut, and leave your feedback on the comments page. He hopes that as the site continues to grow, and offer different types of methodology to enhance the Tefila of Sepharadim/Eidot HaMizrah in practice, providing those who live in within the USA but far from a community of their own; and as education to others who would like to know more of the ancient and unique liturgy of the Sepharadim.
Hazan Samra hopes that he is playing a part in enabling and enhancing the prayers of Jews around the world.
Visit http://sephardichazzanut.com/ for more info.