Sephardic minyan eschews gender roles

Tifereth Israel Congregation is offering a new egalitarian Sephardic minyan. Credit: File photo.

With its new Sephardic minyan, Tifereth Israel Congregation isn’t looking to do things the traditional way.
Last month, the Conservative synagogue offered its first Sephardic Friday service, an initiative led by congregant and board member Yvonne Shashoua. They’re calling it Minyan Morashah, and according to Shashoua, it will be the only gender-egalitarian Sephardic service in the region. Women will be able to lead
services and read Torah, something quite novel in most Sephardic communities.

“Tifereth Israel has a number of people who are either Sephardim, Mizrahi or half and half. Then there are obviously people who are Ashkenazi but curious and want to know about something different,” Shashoua, whose father is from Baghdad, said. “So I thought it would be a benefit to the synagogue to have a Sephardic minyan.”

It’s actually not the first time a Sephardic minyan has been held at Tifereth Israel. Shashoua, who’s been at the synagogue for 19 years, said that she learned about a Sephardic group that met at the synagogue years ago in an oral history celebrating the temple’s centennial. That group ultimately became Magen David
Sephardic Congregation in Rockville in 1982.

For Rabbi Ethan Seidel, the service also represents a unique way to draw congregants out to less-attended Friday night services, though it comes with a learning curve. Even within Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, services can vary widely. Though certain Sephardic melodies have worked their way into Ashkenazi services, there’s an entirely different musical style to pick up on.

“People ask me, ‘What’s Sephardic music like?’ and it’s all over the map. Some of it is Westernized, some of it sounds like you’re in an Arab souq somewhere,” Seidel says. “And in many Sephardi minyans the whole service is actually sung or chanted. It’s fine if you’ve been coming to that service your entire life, but to put it out there for a group that doesn’t know that, it can be a little tricky.”

To help in the learning process, Shashoua is planning to hold educational meetings and send out links to Sephardic music before services in the future.

According to Magen David’s own history, the first Sephardic Jews moved to the Washington area in the 1920s, with most emigrating from Turkey and Greece. Later, in the 1940s, they were joined by a wave of Jews from Morocco, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

But according to Afraim Katzir, who led Minyan Morashah’s first service and serves as director of Sephardic Heritage International DC, the Sephardic community in and around Washington is small, especially in comparison to nearby Baltimore. But Katzir also said it’s not uncommon for Sephardic Jews to attend services at Conservative synagogues; either purely out of convenience or because of the relaxed gender roles.

Sephardic Jewry, he said, never underwent the same schism that created the varying denominations found among Ashkenazi Jews. As a result, most Sephardic communities hew closer to the strictly Orthodox tradition.

“Historically, Sephardi Judaism did not split into the denominations, so that’s why you get a range of observance,” Katzir explained. “You can go to a community where you walk into a Sephardic synagogue somewhere and it’s like what people would call ultra-Orthodox. And you can go to another one somewhere else and the culture of observance is what you would tend to see at a Conservative synagogue.”

Shashoua said that another service is in the works, though as of right now they won’t be held on a fixed schedule. But she also says the minyan is open to almost anything from the Sephardic or Mizrahi traditions. It’s partly for people who feel more comfortable with Sephardic prayer styles and partly a learning experience for those who want to experience something new.

“I didn’t specify that we’re going to do Iraqi services or Turkish services. We’re casting a wide net,” Shashoua said. “If I find a service leader who wants to do it in Spanish-style or Persian or Yemenite, even though that’s technically not Sephardi, I would be open to that. We can be more creative and do things a little different on Friday nights. Why not?”

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