Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai
Few rabbis lead congregations that rank as “must-see” stops on tourists’ agendas. Fewer still can count Benjamin Franklin among the contributors to their synagogue’s original building fund.
For Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai, serving as spiritual leader of Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States and the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia, is both blessing and challenge.
“It’s a very big responsibility to be part of a synagogue that’s also part of history,” says Gabbai. “It’s a burden we carry with pride, but it’s still a burden. Everything that we say or do will go into the annals of history; every piece of correspondence I send out of my office will go into the archives of the congregation.”
Those archives date from the first half of the 18th century, when the Sephardic congregation’s earliest members included the revolutionary patriot Haym Solomon and the philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. Original minyanim took place in private homes; later, during the Revolutionary War, the congregation’s population swelled as Jews from New York and other metropolitan areas sought refuge from the British.
When Gabbai arrived on the scene in 1988, most members were elderly and attendance was poor. He quickly identified two goals: emphasizing the importance of his synagogue’s 250 years in the community; and building a community emphasizing Torah study and shared meals.
“We cared about every single individual who came through our doors, and even those who didn’t,” Gabbai says. “What attracted a lot of young people — and older ones — was our Sephardi outlook on life. It’s a fierce commitment to observance, with a very open-minded, nonjudgmental attitude of inclusiveness and joie de vivre.”
As befits a clergyman raised in Egypt, son of a mother born in Italy and a father born in Baghdad, Gabbai leads a diverse community whose members run the spectrum of Judaism’s various branches.
“Even though we’re a Sephardi congregation in minhag [custom], a majority of our members have always been of Ashkenazi ancestry,” Gabbai observes. “They feel at home here, and they’ve adopted the Sephardi customs when they’re in the synagogue.”
Gabbai believes the arc of history will find Mikveh Israel flourishing.
“If, after a long life, I’m no longer on the scene, this congregation will continue on the same path that started in 1740,” he predicts. “No doubt it will still be alive and thriving when Moshiach comes and takes us back to our homeland.”