Magen David Sephardic Congregation Celebrates Its Storied History and a New Rabbi

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Magen David Sephardic Congregation President Elliot Totah shows U.S. Rep. David Trone an exhibit recounting the synagogue’s history at its March 17 event. Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak

Magen David Sephardic Congregation members celebrated two smachot on Sunday evening, March 17, when they installed their new spiritual leader Rabbi Dr. Ari Soussan and commemorated 25 years in their building in Rockville.

Some of the 200 attendees wore their traditional clothing from their native lands and listened to music in several languages sung by their own Hazan Liran Kohn.
They also feasted on a menu featuring smoked eggplant, Moroccan style lamb and lots of Middle Eastern spices.

The sanctuary was decorated with pillars of remembrance filled with photos, newspaper articles and official documents of the shul’s past in what was called a “visual journey of our community.”

Board President Elliot Totah, a lifelong member of Magen David, said most of the members are either first-generation Americans or came to this country as refugees themselves.

“We have built ourselves up,” and become a part of the Washington, D.C., community. “We gave back,” starting businesses and employing many people.

“We are not victims. We are trailblazers. We are builders, and we are always moving forward,” he said.

Under Totah’s leadership, Magen David is growing. In the past two years, “our membership has grown over 50%,” said Board Vice President Bernard Suissa.

Soussan was installed during a short ceremony. Past presidents or their living relatives passed a tallit bag from one to the other as they each made a silent wish for their new rabbi. They then handed the tallit to Soussan, who immediately said a blessing and wrapped it around himself.

Soussan was born in Germany and studied in many countries, receiving his rabbinical ordination from the Midrash Sefaradi in Jerusalem.

Soussan, who joined the U.S. Army soon after 9/11 and served as a chaplain for decades, compared that “very difficult time” to what is happening now in Israel and Gaza. “Jews all over the world are watching,” he said, adding that his son is currently serving in Gaza.
“We are struggling to gain our equilibrium, but this is not the first time that our people have experienced difficult times, and we also know one thing with complete faith. We will endure.”

Several times during his speech, Soussan, who holds the rank of colonel and is assigned to the National Defense University in Washington, called the congregation “my family,” and expressed his admiration for the warmth that members have for each other.

Rabbi Sanford Dresin, a close friend of Soussan who also had been an Army chaplain, praised the congregants, noting, “You all have made a very wise choice.”
Keynote speaker U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), who is running for the U.S. Senate, received a warm welcome.

“We have to be there for each other. We have to be there for Israel,” he said. He urged Israeli leaders and its people to stay focused on its goal of defeating Hamas. “What has to happen is the elimination of Hamas,” he said.

“Let’s continue to stand together. Let’s continue to stand for Israel. We cannot let up. The fight is getting tougher and tougher every day,” he added.

Trone is a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Abraham Accords Caucus and said he believes it will be person-to-person contact that will bring about a workable solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

“That’s a really smart way so we can understand what’s going on there,” he noted.
The immediate goal must be to bring the hostages home and eliminate Hamas. When the fighting ends, the world must help southern Israel and Gaza rebuild and work toward a lasting peace that includes a two-state solution, Trone said.

He praised congregants who are keeping their traditions and stories from other countries alive. “They really make the fabric, the tapestry, of what we have here” in America.
People witnessed “the horrors, the horrors of barbarianism” that occurred Oct. 7, but he said, this is “a community of resilience, a community of toughness and a community that knows our values.”

He promised to support Israel as well as fight against drug abuse and crime.

“Every decision I make is for our children and grandchildren. That’s the lens we have to use,” Trone said, adding that many other legislators look only at the immediate future and seek easy decisions, or they calculate how every decision well affect their reelection bid.

Enjoying the evening were several dignitaries, including Deputy Head of Mission at the Israeli Embassy Eliav Benjamin, the Moroccan ambassador to the United States, a representative from the Portuguese embassy and Montgomery County Council President
Andrew Friedson.

U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen sent letters of congratulation. Montgomery County Councilmembers issued a proclamation, noting, “Sephardic Jews have had an incredible impact in the United States since their arrival in 1654.”

Magen David traces its roots back to 1966 when its charter was established. It began in a small house in Silver Spring. As the community grew, congregants rented a room in Ohr Kodesh synagogue for weekly Shabbat services.

The congregation moved into its own home in 1986 at the corner of Tilden Lane and Old Georgetown Road in Rockville before moving to its current location on Woodglen Drive and Edson Lane 25 years ago.

Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.

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