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Shul within a shul

Sephardic Center dedicated at Ahavath Torah

The chants of morning services led by Cantor Ya’akov Cohen filled the new Sephardic sanctuary at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood on Sunday as congregants slowly filled the synagogue and the women’s balcony. They were coming to celebrate the dedication of the Benaroya Sephardic Center, a project that took root in a neighbor’s basement 27 years ago and came to full fruition last weekend.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who presides over one community with four separate congregations under the Ahavath Torah roof, noted in his homily that the completion of the Sephardic Center and sanctuary also completes the vision of a diverse, yet unified, Jewish community.

Linda Benaroya, who greeted many of the women by name as they entered the ezrat nashim, the women’s section, said that “perhaps the best way to describe what we have here, multiple synagogues under one roof, is to call it a synaplex. We really appreciate our community’s uniqueness as a melting pot.” There had been some thought of building a separate Sephardic shul in another location, she said, but “Ahavath Torah had been our home, almost from the beginning, and we didn’t want to leave. This is a special place with beautiful, positive energy.”

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Raphael Benaroya dedicated the Sephardic Center in memory of his father, Jacob. jeanette friedman

The Sephardic Center is named for her father-in-law, Jacob Benaroya, a Holocaust survivor from Bulgaria. His son, Raphael, a businessman, was a driving force behind the center, along with Albert Allen, who started the congregation in his house in Englewood with just 10 families. Now it has more than 75 member-families.

Raphael Benaroya told the gathering, which included Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle and Police Chief Arthur O’Keefe, “My father would have liked this beautiful place. He would have told me, ‘It’s not about yofi, it’s about offi,’ not about beauty, but about character. We would have liked middot,” positive character traits, “and mutual respect to be the defining characteristics.”

He said that he envisioned that the center would turn into a place of learning, with a library and classes open to all – a “Torah fortress built on a strong foundation,” a place where young families and young men and women would come. “We will make them feel welcome,” he said. “We would wish for them to be productive and engaged.”

Before the speeches began, mezuzot were placed on the doorposts and Torahs in traditional Sephardi silver cases were carried into the sanctuary and placed in the ark. The women in the balcony ululated as the men sang and danced in a circle in front of the ark.

Rabbis who spoke – Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah; Zev Reichmann of East Hill Synagogue and director of the Mechina Program at Yeshiva University; Chaim Pupko, associate rabbi of Ahavath Torah; and Mordechai Gershon, assistant rabbi assigned to the Sephardic Center – and delivered d’vrei torah, blessings and good wishes for the future, linked the synagogue to ancient Jewish tradition, to the mishkan in the desert, to the land of Israel, and to the unity of the Jewish people.

Joseph Chetrit, a major benefactor representing his siblings and their families, dedicated the Chetrit Sanctuary in the names of his parents, Alice and Simon Chetrit. “Emunah, faith, is what carries this special Jewish community in Englewood,” he said. “It has been proven that when you do something le sheym Shamayim, for the sake of God, that you will have a success.”

Denise Setton, whose family joined the Sephardic congregation 24 years ago, was the project manager and said it took nine months to see it through. Her husband is from Egypt, and when she was raising her children, she wanted them to be part of a growing Sephardic community. She echoed what founder Albert Allen has said many times and said again on Sunday: “We wanted our children to learn our special heritage and not forget our own traditions, yet still be part of the larger Jewish community.”

During ceremonies, emceed by Norris Nissim, chairman of the executive committee, Benaroya singled Setton out for special praise, and presented her, from a distance, with a plaque of Jerusalem stone in appreciation of her efforts. Also receiving special recognition were Ken Eckstein, past president of Ahavath Torah, and Fred Horowitz, a member of the center’s executive committee.

In his concluding remarks, Goldin said, “There is one thing we haven’t yet heard…. Why was it so important for this shul to be part of our shul? Because we are Am Echad – one people. The Ashkenazic people would not be complete without the Sephardim, and vice versa. We are a microcosm of all that should be, and we should project this model to others. But this is just the beginning. We will still need patience and we will have to continue the work. When there are tensions, as there will be in any relationship, let us always remember we are Am Echad.”

Shlomo Tsadok, a gabbai and member of the executive committee, told The Jewish Standard, “At the dedication, I could see the future, one that inspires us to love Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel.”

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