Ashkenazim in a Sephardi Shul

Etz Ahaim logoLast week I was discussing the term Sephardi, and Little Frumhouse on the Prairie, who just posted a delicious carnival of delightful bites, suggested I blog about how we Ashkenazim came to a Sephardi shul (or should I say beit knesset…shul is yiddish).

There are a lot of Ashkenazim at Congregation Etz Ahaim. A while back, I wrote a post about Voices of Etz Ahaim, a marvelous oral history book put together by two Ashkenazi members. Many of the Ashkenazim are women married to Sephardi men, but sometimes it’s the reverse. I decided to make a list of “key ingredients” of why Ashkenazim are attracted to Etz Ahaim. Then I add my own personal note at the end.

1) food: Sephardim (the women–the men can’t locate the kitchen…so maybe I should say Sephardot?) know how to cook. Elaborate kiddushes might include dishes such as meat patties on pastry, borekas with a variety of fillings, bulghur & chickpea salad with grated carrots and parsley, and fancy cookies. A simpler kiddush has chickpeas and olives. And there’s usually a jar of herring for the Ashkenazim who need their fix.

2) International flavor: Countries represented include Turkey, Greece, Italy, Israel, Iran, Iraq, France, Morocco, Brazil, Russia. French is spoken in pockets; it’s fun to listen in on the conversations.

Ladino is part of the service. Bendicho su nombre is sung when the Torah is taken out. Ain Kelokeinu is also half Hebrew, half Ladino: non come estro Dio (there is none like our God).

3) Community: It is the only synagogue in Highland Park that isn’t over-crowded and bursting at the seams. We remember “losing” our boys as toddlers in the the large kiddushes of the our previous synagogue. And at Etz Ahaim friendliness comes with the territory.

4) Rabbi Bassous: Our rabbi is both learned and kind, a natural teacher. One can learn from him no matter what your level of Jewish education.

Did I mention the food?

On a more personal note, I like the way the misheberachs (prayer for the sick) are done at Etz Ahaim. When my mother z”l (may her memory be a blessing) was very sick with cancer, the misheberach was very important to me. I didn’t care to say it “quietly to oneself” as was done in the Ashkenazi shul we attended. At Etz Ahaim the women can stand at the mechitza (the separation between men and women) with their requests, and the Rabbi says each name loudly and clearly. I started attending Etz Ahaim on my own, in part so I could hear my mother’s name said out loud. My oldest son soon joined me, as his best friend was at Etz Ahaim. His younger brother soon followed (at that age they went to the groups).

We eventually pulled in my husband (my daughter was born later). Now my husband is on the Executive Board, he’s the treasurer, he keeps track of the aliyot donations, he finds someone to do the haftorah each week, he finds lainers (men who recite Torah) and speech givers when the Rabbi goes away in the summer; they caught him!

But really, it’s the food.

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15 thoughts on “Ashkenazim in a Sephardi Shul

  • B”H

    I’m kind of a “townie” (we moved to the community when I was 6) — when I was in High School, the youth group (which eventually allied itself with NCSY, but started out independent — actually, last I heard, our original Youth Group leader was teaching at Solomon Schecter in East Brunswick — but I digress…..) was a joint Youth Group between Ahavas Achim (the synagogue where I grew up) and Etz Ahaim. I also had a teacher (my brother and I used to walk into HP from New Brunswick on Shabbat afternoons and this teacher used to take us to Minha at Etz). And I also used to visit the Rabbanit occasionally at that point (she was my art teacher and I was close to her).

    So my connection goes back quite a number of years. I started attending services at Etz when one of my good friends started going to Etz (her husband is Sephardic). I thought I would alternate between Etz and Ahavas Achim, but when I started going to Etz, I never turned back 😉

    The things that Leora mentioned I agree with. With me, the major reasons were: 1) I can wake up late, get the synagogue (esnoga) at 10:45 to 11:00 and usually catch the Rabbi’s Drasha (sermon?) and sometimes even be there in time for part of the Tora reading 2) chick peas at kiddush (I’m a diabetic vegan — at most other synagogues I’m lucky if I have seltzer for kiddush) 3) the kiddush is sit down rather than “Buffalo Stampede” and layers of people guarding the “goodies” tables and 4) it’s rarely so crowded that I can’t breathe.


  • Debbie,

    I had to look up esnoga. For those of you not fluent in Ladino, it means synagogue.

    Thanks for the additional comments. Yes, the sit-down kiddush is a nice touch, though lately (in nice weather) it has been most sit, some stand…

  • Lion of Zion,

    Etz Ahaim used to be in New Brunswick, but it moved to HP in the 1960’s. Before New Brunswick, it was in Salonika. Ahavas Achim moved from New Brunswick later (Debbie, can you give dates? AA has no history on their website!). Ohev Emeth or OE (it’s those HP acronyms) moved from New Brunswick to HP in 1973. Ohr Torah (OT) and the Agudah are relative new comers. The Highland Park Conservative Temple also doesn’t have history on their website! I’m guessing it was founded here in HP, earliest Jewish presence? Need to do some research.

    And the acronym you used was harder to look up than esnoga:
    IIRC If I Recall/Remember Correctly
    IIRC If I Read Correctly
    IIRC If I Really Cared
    IIRC If It Really Counts
    IIRC Image and Identity Research Collective
    IIRC Immunity and Infection Research Centre
    IIRC Impedance Imaging Research Center (Korea)
    IIRC Inactive Item Review Code (US DoD)
    IIRC Information Integrity Research Centre (UK)
    IIRC Interactive Illinois Report Card
    IIRC International Inter-Society Research Committee (on Nuclear Codes and Standards)
    IIRC International Interdisciplinary Research Colloquium
    IIRC International Internet Recruiting Consultants, Inc.
    IIRC International Interpretation Resource Center
    IIRC Internet Information Research Center
    IIRC Interstate Insurance Receivership Compact
    IIRC Iraqi Islamic Reconciliation Conference
    IIRC Isn’t It Really Cool
    IIRC IVF & Infertilty Research Centre (Calcutta, India)

  • Sounds lovely.
    We’re in the Ashkenaz shul in Shiloh, which is in our backyard and there are Yeminites and Morocans etc, too. We don’t do weekly kiddush, just every month. The Chassidishe shul does a big one every week.

  • I know what you mean about Sephardic food. I used to be married to a Sephardic man, and his mom’s food was the best part of the marriage!

  • Batya, sounds like you’ve got the international flavor, too.

    Raizy and Jack: we used to call ourselves epicurean members of Etz Ahaim. Because before we joined formally we would show up whenever our neighbors invited us to a fancy kiddush.

  • I’m friends with one of the Sephardic women who regularly cook for shul events at Etz Ahaim (Lily). I always enjoy my infrequent visits there. It is also one of the two shuls in town which are not referred to by its initials (although there is no sign of Khal Chassidim become KC, so that may be less of a differentiator eventually.)

  • What a great post! I heartily agree with you about both food and friendliness. I don’t normally daven at a Sephardic synagogue, but we have a wonderful rabbi in town who is sephardic and gives community shiurim that I try to attend whenever possible. The folks there are very friendly and down to earth. It is also nice to see such a mix of cultures in one place.

    Guess your husband took to his new surroundings and then some!

  • All true . . . (based on my own experience at the shul)
    Leora, I love your blog. Julie mentioned that you have a blog, but I never saw it before. Wonderful posts.

  • Nice to see you guys happy there in Etz. We are also a small Sephardic community in Teaneck, NJ. We are called Teaneck Sephardic Center (Lev Haim) I am also married to a Sephardic man and I am attracted not only to Sephardic food, but also the beautiful Tefila of the Ari Hakadosh/Nusah Yerushalmi. I just find Sephardic practices very spiritual. Any ways, we also have an elaborate sit down Kiddush and we would welcome anybody who wants to join or even visit our Kehila. Keep us in mind. With Warmest regards from Teaneck, NJ ( 10 mins from the George Washington Bridge)

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