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Israeli Sephardim Regroup at Rebuilt Shul

March 17, 2011 By:
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Rabbi Zalman Lipsker (left) greets Rabbi Moshe Arbiv at the dedication for a social hall at Beit Harambam. Photo by Greg Bezanis

As he prayed in a packed Northeast Philadelphia congregation, with the clear morning light filtering through the windows, Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar's long white beard appeared to become one with the tallis that was enshrouding his head.

At a traditional break in the service, the Moroccan-born Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel -- on a rare visit to Philadelphia -- began to speak in deliberate Hebrew, each syllable stretched for maximum effect. The shul's rabbi, Amiram Gabay, was at his side.

With Purim just around the corner, Amar stated, it's important for every Jew to send at least two packages of mishloach manot, holiday gift packages, and give tzedakah to the poor.

A few minutes later, and one floor below, the rabbi entered the new social hall, with his rounded hat -- the kind traditionally worn by North African religious leaders -- and embroidered, floral-pattern robe now more visible. He affixed a mezuzah to the room's entrance, and then proceeded to offer blessings to Beit Harambam Congregation.

Then, with little warning, Amar headed for the exit, off to visit other Orthodox rabbis and schools in the area, including the Politz Hebrew Academy, before heading to New York for Shabbat.

 

The appearance might have been just a blip on his busy calendar, but for the synagogue, it marked the capstone of a historic week.

"This visit puts Philadelphia on the map, it puts Beit Harambam on the map, and it put the Israeli Sephardic community here on the map," declared congregant Raphy Beniflah. The 52-year-old, who immigrated from Morocco in 1970, is one of the few members who never lived in Israel.

As Jews everywhere are preparing to celebrate Purim this weekend -- and this shul is set for two celebrations, one just for women and one for the whole community -- the families of Beit Harambam can recall what it's like, in a small way, to be confronted by the likes of a Haman, and to triumph in the end.

In this case, Haman came in the form of an arson; 11 years ago, the synagogue was burned beyond recognition, and the perpetrator or perpetrators were never caught. Now, the synagogue is larger than it ever was -- it recently dedicated a new sanctuary, along with the social hall -- and has reached a new level of activity, according to its longtime president, Yaacov Avraham.

Figures on the number of Israelis in Philadelphia are hard to come by, but by all accounts, there are more than 30,000 living in the region. The general consensus is that many of these ex-pats steer clear of the organized Jewish community. Beit Harambam provides a striking example of Israelis building a vibrant congregation, on their own terms.

A Range of Backgrounds

There's no official membership rolls, but between 250 to 300 people are active in Beit Harambam, according to leaders there. The members hail from a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Libyan and Iraqi. There are even a few Ashkenazim.

And it's the larger of two Sephardic synagogues in the Northeast. The other is Congregation Mesilat Yesharim in Rhawnhurst, which also has a sizable Israeli population.

The building sits on Verree Road, not far from the Klein JCC. It's surrounded by private homes, and would almost blend in, were it not for the Jerusalem stone on part of the exterior, and the adjacent parking lot.

The shul is one of about 20 Israeli-run synagogues in America that have cropped up in the last two decades, according to Rabbi Sam Kassin, director of the Shehebar Sephardic Center, which is based in Jerusalem and has a presence in New York.

Many are crediting the Harambam's new assistant rabbi, Moshe Arbiv, with helping to reinvigorate the community. Arbiv received his training at the Shehebar center, and is a family friend of the Sephardic chief rabbi.

The shul's story began in 1978, when Gabay, who was also born in Morocco and later lived in Israel, started a minyan in the basement of his home in the Rhawnhurst section of Northeast Philadelphia. The rabbi, whose family also owns a Judaica shop, was convinced that a growing number of Israelis needed a place where they could pray with other Hebrew speakers with familiar Sephardi-style nusach, or prayer style.

The congregation grew slowly, and by the 1980s, the members had purchased a small home at its current site.

But in May of 2000, a fire raged through the building, leaving ruins filled with broken glass and charred walls. Torah scrolls and other holy books were destroyed and had to be buried. Police classified the case as arson, though no one was ever arrested. (A year later, a teenager was apprehended for spray-painting a swastika on the building's charred remains.)

The wider Jewish community, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, rallied to raise funds to help the congregation rebuild. By 2002, it had managed to erect a new structure.

But according to shul president Avraham, if the synagogue was to continue to grow and attract new, young families, it needed to greatly expand its activities and enlarge its space.

Meir Badush, a 32-year-old father of five who lives nearby, said that while Gabay started the shul, "he's getting older, and it was very hard for the community to take it to the next level."

That's where Rabbi Moshe and Leah Arbiv came in. The Israeli-born couple -- his roots are Libyan, hers are Moroccan -- have worked with Israelis in the area for several years, but have only been based at Beit Harambam for about a year-and-a-half.

The young rabbi is paid jointly by the synagogue and the Sephardic Center, which covers his outreach work.

By all accounts, the 30-something couple have helped attract young families by adding daily study sessions for men, and classes and activities for kids.

Leah Arbiv started a new tradition at the shul that's quickly taken root; every Tuesday morning, women gather and read aloud from the book of Psalms.

"It's amazing sometimes, how people want to be connected," she said."A lot of the families, they really missed that connection. They want their kids to learn something."

By the time the Arbivs arrived, an effort to enlarge the building was coming to fruition. That multiyear process involved contentious zoning hearings and objections from area residents. According to several members, it was successful in part because City Councilman Brian O'Neil (D-District 10) supported the effort and helped shepherd it through.

According to longtime congregant Yossi Brodsky, who happens to be Ashkenazi, many members of the community work as contractors or in the construction business, and lent their time, labor and expertise to the project.

Next on tap is enlarging an existing eruv to encompass the synagogue and surrounding blocks.

Though the brand-new sanctuary and social hall have been in use for at least a year, the shul's leadership waited until Rosh Chodesh Adar II to officially dedicate the space, noting that the month of Purim is the time to mark happy occasions.

On March 7, a few days before the chief rabbi's visit, more than 100 people packed into the new social hall as a vocalist from Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community belted out Hebrew tunes. Seemingly every inch of the round tables were covered by plates of humus and tehina, beets, peppers and fried fish.

Gabay, Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center, Rabbi Dov Brisman of Young Israel of Elkins Park and Rabbi Zalman Lipsker of Chabad took turns addressing the room in a mix of Hebrew and English.

They compared the story of the synagogue to the cycles of destruction and rebirth in Jewish history, including the destruction of the Temple.

"There's not a congregation in the Philadelphia area with a stronger connection to the state of Israel than this one," Daniel Kutner, consul general of Israel for the region, told the crowd.

In between davening Ma'ariv and having dinner, Zohar Fellus, 40, a house painter who lives in Elkins Park, noted that he started coming 10 years ago to say Kaddish for his father and has slowly become more involved.

Fellus said he doesn't get to shul as often as he'd like, in part because his American-born wife and daughters don't feel all that comfortable there. But this was a moment he wanted to savor.

"It feels like it's blessed," he said of the congregation. "The community will grow. Israelis, if they go to an American synagogue, the connection is not there. Here, it's all in the Israeli style. You feel pride."

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