Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac is known as the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Washington area, with a membership of 400 families. Like most congregations in the region, the congregants and culture tend to hail from the Eastern European Ashkenazi tradition.
But Beth Sholom is also home to a Sephardi minyan, led by Rabbi Haim Ovadia, former rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville.
The Sephardi minyan is “a melting pot of members from the vast and ancient lands of the Middle East such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, Yemen and modern Israel,” according to Beth Sholom’s website. Active since 1996, the minyan has about 50 attendees on an average Shabbat and up to 150 during special events or high holidays.
Member Len Harris described the minyan as “forward-thinking with a Sephardi mentality. ”Ovadia is the founder and managing director of Torah VeAhava, an online Judaic studies institution that offers a semichah (rabbinic ordination) program, podcasts and articles.
Ovadia was not available to speak for this story, but Harris said Torah VeAhava is “dedicated to creating a more inclusive view of Judaism, particularly within the Sephardic community, where there is only Orthodoxy and no Conservative or Reform elements.”
Torah VeAhava and the Sephardic minyan work closely together. On Nov. 6, the minyan hosted its first fundraising gala for Torah VeAhava.
“There was cocktail time, dinner, testimonies and then a concert. The rabbi was the main singer of the band and his wife played piano,” said attendee Rami Loya. “They played Israeli songs, Jewish songs.”
About 180 people attended the gala, hosted by Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. According to Loya, people came from New York, Hawaii and Israel for the event. “For the last couple of years, we were hampered by COVID,” Harris said, “But this fundraising event a couple of weeks ago was wildly successful.”
Harris said that Ovadia’s reputation is growing in the area as more realize that he is “a bright, multitalented individual.” During services, Ovadia often brings his musical talents and passion.
Music is a crucial part of Shabbat and holiday services in the Sephardi minyan, where “poignant Sephardi melodies sung in unison by congregants” fill the room, according to Beth Sholom’s website.
“The rabbi is able to adopt many tunes. He can lead prayers with an Ashkenazi tune, or a Moroccan tune or a Syrian tune,” Loya said.
Sometimes after Shabbat services, the Sephardi minyan holds a private kiddush, complete with Middle Eastern food.
Said Loya, “There’s a lot of ruach [spirit]. I look forward to every Shabbat.”