New Sephardi/Mizrahi Cultural Center
Under Way In Los Angeles/New York

excerpted from August/September Nasawi News

David Shasha, an educator based in Brooklynís largely Syrian community, argues that there is a vast store of knowledge and history which needs to be cohesively organized and transmitted to new generations of American Jews. ìThe Sephardic community lacks an institution to preserve and promote its history and culture,î he says.  ìItís in our interest to fund a research institution that will effectively document this unique heritage.î
Organizers also propose to unite disparate Jewish organizations, academics, creative thinkers and the lay public, through ESS as well as a quarterly magazine, curriculum development, cultural programming, diversity training and other strategies.
ìOur purpose is threefold,î says executive director Jordan Elgrably.  ìFirst, we create renewed interest in Jewish heritage, by educating ourselves and others about Sephardi/Mizrahi achievement, arts and tradition; in so doing we give a dynamic answer to rampant acculturationówhatís unfortunate about adapting to American mainstream culture, you know, is that while gaining total access to society, we often lose much of what makes each of us unique.  Second, our outreach to other ethnic communities, with whom we have much in common historically (Middle Easterners, Latinos, African Americans), specifically aims to fight anti-Semitism.  When we invite others to our programs, we share the fascinating stories we have to tell, we humanize Jews, counter stereotypes, and make new friends.  This improves the quality of life for everyone.  Third, our support of an oral history project like the Endowment for Sephardic Stories effectively leads to a revitalization of Jewish culture as a whole.  In other words, youíll see a new wave of literature, feature films, documentaries, theater, provocative essays on Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewish political culture, music, performance art, painting and more, so that the center becomes a hub for creativity and renewal.î

Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in North America often find that their history and cultures are ineffectively represented in most Jewish institutions.  This is why, in addition to creating their own synagogues, where they observe a traditional minhag, many groups have formed a variety of associations.  These include Sephardim of Italian, Greek, Rhodesli, Turkish and other Spanish descent who migrated from the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Baghdadi/Indian, Persian, Moroccan, Syrian, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews.  Among the many community organizations are the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History (CIJOH), the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, the American Sephardi Federation and the Sephardic Educational Center.  Sephardi/Mizrahi communities have also begun publishing periodicals and books which focus on their heritage, often in such languages as Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, French and Spanish.
The unparalleled diversity of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities, however, is characterized by a great deal of fragmentation.  As a result, these cultures tend to be marginalized or overlooked in the mainstream.  The new Sephardi/Mizrahi center proposes to bring them altogether in a single institution, albeit in multiple locations. Combining both a Jewish secular and religious approach, Shasha and Elgrably suggest, may help combat the challenges of fragmentation.

The new business plan for the center, which is supervised by board members Elio Zarmati and Susan Chatman, calls for a large creative space in Los Angeles, with a gallery/performance hall, conference room, library and offices.  The L.A. center, scheduled to open in 2001, will be available to Sephardi/Mizrahi organizations without comparable facilities.

In New York, Ivri-NASAWI activists are working with Jeff Dweck, David Shasha and Ammiel Alcalay, to open the centerís educational headquarters in partnership with New York University, where Alcalay will be a guest scholar next year. ìItís imperative,î says Shasha, ìthat we address the lack of intellectual and academic aggressiveness that has beset our community.î  To land a wing at NYU, which has a large Jewish and Middle Eastern student body, will require a minimum contribution of $250,000.  More than $1 million yearly will be channeled through New Yorkís education and advocacy programs.

Organizers say the projected national operating budget for both coasts, including chapters in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, DC, will top $2 million.  They hope to make the center self-sufficient, through earned income, grants, endowments and memberships, by the end of the third year of operations.  $250,000 per year will be earmarked for a start-up glossy quarterly magazine, which Elgrably envisions ìas  the New Yorker meets the Levant.î
Center writers and videographers with ESS expect to record as many as 5,000 Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewsóa project similar in scope to that of the Shoah Foundation, which primarily documents Holocaust stories.  ìAs our parents and grandparents leave us,î notes Elio Zarmati, ìwe are losing invaluable information about our own history.  To understand where weíre going, I think we must document where weíve come from.  Thatís why establishing ESS is really an urgent matter.î

In addition, the center will devote a portion of its budget to the translation of classic and contemporary works of Judaism, philosophy and literature not currently available in English.  Jacques Hassoun, for instance, has written eloquently of Egyptian Jewish history in French, while Algerian-born philosopher Shmuel Trigano has published several books yet to be translated.   Seminal works of Jewish history and thought to be translated include Solomon ibn Vergaís The Rod of Judah; Joseph ha-Kohenís The Vale of Tears, and Judah Haleviís The Kuzari. Many additional texts in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and other languages will be translated. The Los Angeles center will produce the new magazine and govern national strategies for cultural programming.  Existing chapters of Ivri-NASAWI in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, DC-Baltimore will do much of their own fundraising, but will receive revenue from the national budget.
Organizers seek to create a matrix in the United States which will compare to similar institutions abroad, such as the Centre Rachi in Paris, the Arias Montano Institute in Madrid, and the Babylonian Heritage Center in Israel.

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A Founder's Circle is now forming. Major contributors will be invited to participate on the center's board of directors.
To learn how you can contribute to this seminal project, call 323ï650ï3157.

         New Assoc. of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers Intl.
         1033 N. Orlando Ave., Los Angeles CA 90069
         in New York, 212.362.9074
         in SF Bay Area, 415.338.1706

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