A NEED FOR A MIZRAHI (SEPHARADI) YESHIVA IN AMERICA
Houman Moussighi Kashani
This essay advocates for a traditional, authentic practice of Judaism according to the Middle Eastern minhag familiar to Iranian and other Mizrahi Jews. Houman Moussighi Kashani, a graduate student at Northwestern University who was born in Iran, calls attention to issues of assimiliation and intermarriage among various Jewish populations, but more urgently, comments on the continuing erosion of Sephardi/Mizrahi traditions in the United States. [ed.]
Endorsed by:Parvaz Farnad, UCLA School of Public HealthKathrin Kangavari, CSUN School of Engineering Michael Rad, Eretz Cultural Center Arash Lalezary, St. George Medical SchoolPejman Firouztale, Medical College of Wisconsin Shahriar Arshadnia, NYU School of Dentistry Daniel Tavakoli, North Shore Hebrew AcademyNiloofar Darvishzadeh, John Jay Criminal Justice Jack Massachi, JM Communications Michelle Yadegari, UCLA Houman Hanasab, UCLA Babak Egbaleieh, Sackler School of Medicine Ramona Baratian, Bernard Baruch College Samuel Kashani, The Chicago Medical School Houman Razi, Whittier School of LawRamin Razi, Mega Menswear David Fozailoff, Diamond Collection, LTD Sharlyn Azizi, University of Phoenix
I have received many comments via email in regards to Our Traditional Sepharadic Judaism article (Shofar Magazine, Jan 2000), which has been read by many fellow Persian-Jews from coast-to-coast in English and Farsi (and translated into French for La Voix Sepharade magazine in Montreal). Indeed, most of the comments were in agreement to what was stated in the article--along with a few expected discordant views.
This article is a result of my defense for our argument and I hope to make our comments more clear to those who have wrongly judged our point of view. It is definitely a right of the reader to have different views and I am so happy that we have people such as Pedram (a physician in Great Neck, NY) who actually expressed his point of view and cared enough to raise a voice and write a response to my article. I believe it is through these discussions that we can educate each other and hopefully find a solution. Throughout this article, I might refer to Pedram and his views. However, by no means do I mean to condemn him, rather Pedram is actually just a representative for those who hold the same ideas.
Contrary to Pedrams views, Arash and I attempted to find solutions for our community. Unlike many members in our community, we tried to do away with the extremely negative connotations and stereotypes of denominationalism and use Shomer Israel and Traditionalism as a means to bring our community together. Moreover, contrary to what some people might believe, not every Persian Jew will suddenly become 100% Shomer Shabbat and observe Mitzvoth (although it would indeed be ideal if that were possible). It is a process which takes time and must be done gradually and it MUST include the entire family, rather than individual impressionable children or young adults, and it must be done in the most thoughtful and compassionate manner.
Arash and I are in no way attempting to be new Mendelsohns, trying to "reform" Judaism, as Pedram so obviously implied. I would like to pose a question for those who share the same ideas as Pedram does. Every morning I wake up and put my tefilin on and say Shacharit, keep kosher in the house (but dont keep separate dishes), but do eat at outside restaurants, go to Shabbat every Saturday, but drive there, and I have been fortunate to have the finest Jewish education (composed mostly of Modern Orthodox and Conservative). My question to Pedram is what would you call me and the many, many, many more like myself? I in no way want to consider myself Orthodox nor Reform.
By stating Traditional Mizrahi (Sepharadi) Judaism, we attempted to be all inclusive--including everyone from the most observant (as Pedram Bral, and others like him), to the moderate (as myself, and others like myself) to even the least observant Persian Jew that comes to Kenisah only on Yom Kippur. A person can indeed be Traditional and be completely Shomer Mitzvot and Shabbat--Arash and I in no way have any problem with the observance level of an individual--after all being open-minded involves both sides of the religious spectrum to compromise. Traditional Persian Judaism does to an extent maintain essentially the "Orthodox" qualities, while maintaining the Persian aspects our ancestors and the understanding and acceptance to all fellow Persian Jews by removing these unnecessary labels that consciously as well as subconsciously promote denominationalism and separation, as unfortunately present in the Ashkenazi community.
By using Shomer Israel, we attempted to portray that keeping Shabbat (although very holy), should not be the only basis to label someone as a religious person. Hashem gave us 10 commandments and keeping Shabbat is only one of the 10. And likewise, we must do whatever it takes to promote all of the Mitzvot equally--without focusing on one more than the other. Indeed, being religious is not solely ascribed to just practice, but it must involve spirituality, morals and ethics, and above all family values.
Rather than living in an imaginary world of believing that every Jew must and eventually will conform to the "Orthodox" way of practice, and without solely pointing fingers and criticizing, we at least attempted to ascertain the underlying root of the problem, and consequently attempted to find solutions in to prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring in the PERSIAN community. It is vital to recognize that unfortunately not every Persian Jew will become "Orthodox." Coming to this realization, one can do two things here: One can completely ignore the problem and let thing progress the way it is and have a great division in our community, or one can learn to accept those who choose an alternate, less observant way of living the Torah, and include them. We preferred to do the latter.
As bright a physician as Im sure Pedram is, when he has a patient in front of him with a serious illness, he knows that he cant just symptomatically treat the patient, but rather a good physician must act like a detective and ascertain the underlying etiology or cause. The same applies in this case. Pedram (and others like him) needs to ask himself, why are the Persian-Jews going to other denominational synagogues? Could it be because they are feeling alienated by the Ashkenazi Orthodox community and given no choice but to resort to Reform or Conservative synagogues and schools? Is this phenomenon of Persian Jews identifying themselves more with less religious synagogues and schools in fact a consequence of the close-mindedness and insularity of many Orthodox people?
I must mention here that, I can not help Pedram (or such people with his views) in their "fight against" the Reform denomination, as Pedram has stated in his article. We must always remember that this (Ashkenazi) mentality of fighting against the less religious, or vise versa, will not get the Persian-Jewish community anywhere. JEWS DO NOT FIGHT AGAINST OTHER JEWS, JEWS MUST LOVE ONE ANOTHER--no matter what our differences in opinion are. (Remember that it was Sinat Chinam, or hating fellow Jews, that brought forth the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem). If we do not look after each other, who do we expect will? My intention, as well as Arashs intention from the very beginning, have been to work together to do away with ALL stereotypes which have caused so much division within those Ashkenazis and which is now becoming prevalent within our community.
By working together, we CAN set an example for the Ashkenazi Jewry and show them it is possible to have different levels of observance, while maintaining ONE unified Jewish community. Moreover, unlike what Pedram has mentioned in his article, we in no way attempted to use our educational status to feign erudition of religious matters.
Lastly, we used the example of the Great Hacham Yedidia Shofet (may he live 120 years long) as the quintessential rabbi who understands the different needs of his community. And we in no way stated or implied whether he does or does not agree with our views.
However, as an example, I should mention, that unlike many of the new synagogues that have opened and are being run by Ashkenazi-trained (including Chabad "rabbis") Persian rabbis, Nessah Israels (Hacham Shofet and Rav David Shofets synagogue) parking lot is open for people who need to drive to come to Kenisah on Shabbat. Nevertheless, I will leave it to the reader to decide whether it is better for a synagogue to close their parking accommodations so that people would be turned away from going to synagogue, whereby leaving him/her no choice but to go to either a Reform Temple, or not even attend synagogue at all? Does that make sense?
Right now, there is a Reform synagogue (that accepts gays and lesbians) in California where currently approximately 80% of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies conducted are for Persian families! And what is more, the way Reform Judaism is going with their 52% intermarriage rate, within the next 20-30 years I will assure you there will be little of Reform Judaism left, since most of their members will have assimilated and/or intermarried, especially the way I see things going to school in Chicago in the American community.
Indeed, this will happen to our community if nothing is done about it. That is why we must do almost whatever it takes to bring people into our Traditional Persian-Jewish synagogues and maintain the sense of community--if not, I will promise you that this schism will be even more apparent 10 years from now, and then it will be way too late to reach the ever distancing Traditional community and liberal Jewish movement, and thus be harder to close the gaps within these separating denominations.
I will never forget the incident that occurred probably two or three years ago where there was a group of Reform Jews going to pray at the Kotel (mixed). Shortly thereafter, the Haredis (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) came and began to throw tomatoes at the Reform Jews and essentially a brouhaha (uproar) occurred. I am most definite that most of us do not want to see this happen in our community or with our descendents.
Everyone should always remember that whether we, Traditional Persian Mizrahim, or whether those Ashkenazis who are Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform--we should remember we are all Jews--just as long as he or she is born to Jewish mother, of course. And anyone with such beliefs should consider themselves Shomer Israel. No matter how much I almost completely disagree with the Reform (and messianic Chabad) practices, etc, I do indeed respect them as Jews.
In essence, no one but HaKodesh Baruch Hu is to judge who is the better Jew. And indeed, just because someone is more observant, it does NOT necessarily imply that they are better, or (G-d forbid) holier than someone else who is less observant. I swear to you I can give you many examples where so-called "Orthodox" Persian Jews who have stolen, cheated, used drugs, had sexual encounters with multiple non-Jewish women, and worst of all disrespected their parents. There was even an incident last year with a so-called "Orthodox" Persian rabbi who molested children.
What really matters is religion, good family values and spirituality. Rabbis like the Great Hacham Yedidia Shofet and Rav David Shofet have been promoting just this--strong family and religious values which will hopefully make our community persist. May Hashem have mercy on those individuals and rabbis who have caused so much heartache and distress to so many parents and families and have destroyed Shalom Habayit for so many.
Moreover, I must say that I have nothing against R. Shneerson and his Chabad movement. Chabad has indeed promoted Ashkenazi Judaism throughout the world--just a few months ago I was in China, and they had Kosher food and Shabbat services available to all who were Jewish.
I do maintain, however, that a Rabbi who wants to be involved in the Persian community should have some type of Eidot Ha'Mizrach training. This is because a good Rabbi needs to understand his community well and teach them the ways of Torah according to their own customs. Indeed, all steps should be taken to actively support this type of scholarship. After all, "Minhag Avot Kehalacha" that is, the customs of our fathers are like Halacha and should not in any way be taken lightly.
Just like the Chabad sect/cult has Shneerson as their role model, we Persian Jews have one of the greatest Rabbis in our community: Hacham Yedidia Shofet. I will never understand why there are some people within our community who look to other sects/cults such as Chabad or denominations such as Reform when we have the greatest Rabbi so close and dear to us all. Moreover, after him, his son, Rabbi David Shofet, who will be the next leader of the entire Persian-Jewish community, will need to lead us in the right path, most importantly as a community.
I must say I was very impressed with Pedram's knowledge of Persian-Jewish history, and I truly wish there were avenues for me and many other young interested Persian Jews through which we could learn more about our Persian-Jewish ancestry and history. The only way I can suggest to do this is to have Mizrahi scholars and Persian-Rabbis in our community to teach us--so it can be passed down to our children and future generations.
Being a Mizrahi Jew is the most important thing in my life, but being Persian is also very important. Our grandparents and our ancestors over 2,000 years ago have spoken this beautiful language (Farsi) and kept their culture, e.g., celebrated Persian New Year (Norouz), and married only Persian-Jews. We must always remember what our heritage is and never lose touch with it. No matter how americanized and acculturated we do get, it is something that no one can or should take away from us. I do believe our Persian rabbis should emphasize this importance and support only Persian-Jewish marriages. If not how else does one expect to keep our heritage, culture and traditions alive if we blend with the Ashkenazim?
Just recently, the major, and most respected true Persian rabbis of Los Angeles, Hacham Yedidia Shofet (may he live 120 years), Rabbi David Shofet, Rabbi Baal Hanes, Rabbi Natan Eli and Rabbi Baal Shem Tov--all signed something equivalent to a constitution which states our stance on Persian-Judaism. If one carefully reads this document, it never mentions the word "Orthodoxy," while it rejects Conservatism, Reform, or any other forms of Judaism in our community. Moreover, it states in Farsi that we are Sonati, which in English translates to Traditional.
In order for us to ensure that our Mizrahi traditions and religiosity will be maintained, I believe it is imperative that a Mizrahi (Sepharadic) Yeshiva be established in New York and/or Los Angeles in order to engender Traditional Mizrahi Rabbis. If in Los Angeles, it should be under the auspicious of the highly respected Persian rabbis; viz., Hacham Yedidia Shofet (Shlita) and Rabbi David Shofet (Shlita), as well as other Mizrahi-trained rabbis. Moreover, G-d willing in the future, it would be more likely to have the resources to subsequently set up the first Persian (Mizrahi) Beit-Din in America.
In so doing it will ensure the continuation of our 2,700 year rich Persian-Jewish history, and furthermore, there will be a greater likelihood that our rich Persian-Jewish heritage, practices, and community will have a better chance of surviving Beezrat Hashem--so that we can practice Judaism the same way our parents and grandparents practiced it in Iran--as an entire community, not as Orthodox and Reform.
Indeed, when a Rabbi is trained at a Sepharadi Yeshiva (which is observant and non-denominational), he is more community-oriented, and he accepts and accommodates the least to most observant people equally; and he does not separate children from their families on Shabbat and Yom Tovs! As it states in Leviticus 19:3, "You shall revere your mother and father, and keep my Sabbaths: 'I am the Lord, your G-d'" notice which comes first.
Even if the aforementioned is not completely feasible, there is no reason for a Persian man who is planning on becoming part of the Persian rabbinate to attend an Ashkenazi or Chabad yeshiva (or marry an Ashkenazi women). There are indeed Sepharadi Yeshivot in Israel and Canada, as well as other countries.
Perhaps if we have more Traditional Rabbis like the Great Hacham Yedidia Shofet (Shlita) and Rabbi David Shofet (Shlita), and if we had more Traditional Synagogues like Nessah Israel (in Santa Monica, California), Persian-Jews will not need to resort to Orthodox, Reform, or especially Chabad ways of alien practices. Indeed, in Iran we never had Chabad or any other denominations (e.g., Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc), and we should never have such divisions or stereotypes here in our community.
Houman M. Kashani may be reached at