‘We Want A Seat At The Table’
Wed, 06/25/2014
Editor and Publisher

One of the most tangible signs of the growing presence of Sephardim in Manhattan is the emerging community anchored by the Edmond Safra Synagogue on the Upper East Side, which will soon will include a day school and a 12-story community center.

At the center of all three institutions is Elie Abadie, 53, soft-spoken but determined rabbi, Jewish educator and physician, who, in the tradition of Maimonides, seeks to heal both the soul and the body while championing Sephardic tradition and culture.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, the rabbi lived in Mexico City before attending Yeshiva University and settling here. His father is a rabbi and he traces his rabbinic lineage back to 15th-century Spain and Provence. He came to Yeshiva University and planned on a fulltime career as a physician, but agreed to lead a Sephardic minyan in Belle Harbor, Queens, while in school, and eventually decided to combine the rabbinate and the practice of medicine.

During a series of interviews in his office at the majestic synagogue on 63rd Street, off Fifth Avenue, built by Lily Safra in memory of her husband, Edmond, Rabbi Abadie talked about his ambitious plans for his own community. But he also declared that  the Sephardic approach to Jewish life is particularly fitting for those seeking strong Jewish tradition while fully participating in modern Western culture.

He said he is bemused when visitors touring the synagogue ask what denomination it is. “Are you Orthodox? Conservative? Reform?” they ask me. “And I tell them we don’t have those divisions in our culture, and never have.”

The rabbi believes that 21st-century American Jews can benefit from the outlook that has marked Sephardic culture for centuries. The goal is to be “people of the world without losing one’s Jewish identity,” he said, noting that this vision is at the core of the synagogue, which has grown to a membership of 635 units, and of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan, which he helped start three years ago with classes for toddlers, nursery and pre-kindergarten. Temporarily housed at 67th Street and Second Avenue, it plans to add a grade a year through high school and will be for boys and girls.

The school will blend Judaic and secular studies, with an emphasis on Sephardic history and culture, rarely taught in Ashkenazi schools. Rabbi Abadie noted, for example, that Zionism did not start with Herzl around the turn of the 20th century. “There were Sephardic Zionists 50 years before,” he said, adding that the Musar movement, emphasizing ethics and morals, began long before 19th-century Ashkenazi scholar Rabbi Israel Salanter, as taught in Ashkenazi schools.

Sephardim are “looked down upon” as less educated by many American Jews, particularly among the older generation, according to the rabbi. Those attitudes are based on “prejudice and ignorance,” he said.

“They find our food exotic, but they tend to know little about Sephardic history,” which for centuries has included a high level of scholarship among sages.

Part of the misunderstanding can be attributed to the fact that many Sephardic Jews, though frequent and even fervent shulgoers, are not fully observant of Shabbat and kashrut. They may attend services on Shabbat morning and then drive to work. This looks hypocritical to Ashkenazi Jews, Rabbi Abadie said, but reflects a different, perhaps more practical outlook among Sephardic rabbinic leaders.

“The Sephardic Jew has faith in God, believes the Torah is divine and that the words of the sages are binding,” he explained. “But at certain stages of life someone might say, ‘I know the traditions are right but they’re difficult for me now and I will come back to them when I am older.’”

He said the rabbis understood that to “disenfranchise” such people would result in “a lost generation,” so empathy and tolerance are shown instead, with the idea that “eventually they will come back” to greater observance.

“We value privacy, and don’t ask what people do at home,” he said. And as an example of the strong traditional strains at odds with the strict observance of mitzvot among Sephardim, he recalled meeting a congregant who was celebrating his daughter’s bat mitzvah with a party at a non-kosher restaurant. “But he was against having her recite the Kiddush at the service” because the tradition is that men say the blessing.

Where the Sephardic community does take a hard line, though, is on intermarriage. A takanah (edict) was issued by Syrian communal religious leaders in 1936 forbidding conversion, and it has held ever since. Even today, when intermarriage is so high among American Jews in general, it is believed to be far less among Sephardim.

“That’s our red line,” Rabbi Abadie said, noting the sages felt that “losing Shabbat observance is temporary but intermarriage means we would lose them altogether.” Young people know that if they marry out they will not be accepted by their families and community. It may sound like a harsh policy to outsiders but it is effective and has kept the community intact.

The effort to ensure socialization among young people is a major incentive for the planned Moise Safra Community Center, which is being built at 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue on land donated by the Safra family. (Safra died earlier this month in Brazil; he was 80.) The 12-story, 65,000-square-foot structure will include a cultural and culinary center, gym, pool and synagogue that seats 300 people.

Rebecca Harary, executive director of the center, said it will create a “safe environment” for young people — membership will be for Jews only — with an emphasis on those from their teens to mid-30s.

Although more Sephardic young people are attending college these days, as opposed to going directly into the family business, Rabbi Abadie says the community is “30 years behind the Ashkenazim” in terms of assimilation. He sees both the school and center as key means of “protecting” his flock from leaving the fold.

For now, he says the greatest challenge he faces is keeping up with the rapid influx of Sephardic Jews to the Upper East Side. “They are coming from all over the world,” the rabbi said. He cited families of all ages coming from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and France as well as Brooklyn, Westchester, the Five Towns and Great Neck.

As a self-described interpreter of Sephardic culture to the larger Jewish community, Rabbi Abadie hopes that “the Sephardic voice will be heard as part of the Jewish, national and world dialogue,” he said.

“We’ve matured and want to have a seat at the table,” particularly on having a Sephardic impact on three areas of Jewish life: the synagogue, with non-denominational and traditional qualities; socialization, with an emphasis on in-marriage and less focus on observance/non-observance of ritual laws in one’s private life; and the Israel debate, where he believes Sephardic representatives “can have a different dialogue with Arab leaders because we understand the culture.”

Rabbi Abadie said Sephardic interlocutors can be more direct and have a history of Jewish-Arab coexistence and mutual respect that long precedes Israeli statehood. “We can speak to them directly and they can’t call us European colonizers,” he pointed out. “We were there [in Israel] before them.”

The rabbi drew media attention leading up to the recent community-wide Celebrate Israel parade when he joined critics on the right who sought to oppose the participation of three left-wing pro-Israel groups. Encouraging his congregants not to march, Rabbi Abadie said he drew the line of tolerance at groups that have taken actions that undermine support for Israel, like boycotting products manufactured in the West Bank and “demonizing” the Jerusalem government and Israel Defense Forces.

“I respect different points of view,” he said, but, “like one child in the family who is hurting the other children, you can’t have him at the table — he can’t be part of the family.”

Though criticized strongly, if privately, by several communal and Israeli officials for his lack of support for the parade, the rabbi said the response he received among his constituents was “very positive.

“I’m a man of principle,” he said, and he plans to continue to speak out on a variety of issues. As his community and clout continues to grow, no doubt more will be listening.

Gary@jewishweek.org