Project will give Sephardic Jews a voice
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Project will give Sephardic Jews a voice

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Thousands of Jews from Asia and North Africa have made their home in America and will be the subject of an ambitious oral history project to record their experiences. c. 1910

The goal: 5,000 interviews. The deadline: Dec. 31, 2015. The objective: To record the stories of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the United States or were born here.

Called “Sephardic America Voices: A Jewish Oral History Project,” it’s sponsored by the New York-based American Sephardi Federation (ASF), in partnership with the University of Miami and Hebrew University.

The project is the brainchild of Carlos Benaim, an ASF board member born in Tangiers, Morocco.

Benaim said that he conceived the project after attending a recent conference in Barcelona, Spain, where author Helene Trigano presented her film with testimonies of Sephardic Jews living in France, “à la [Steven] Spielberg’s Shoah interviews,” he said.

“I was struck that there is no such initiative for our community in the United States,” he added. “My idea was to preserve stories [of Sephardic Jews] that could be lost forever.”

According to Englewood resident Raquel Benatar, another ASF board member who has been involved in the project since its inception, this is “a unique opportunity for U.S. Sephardim to publicize their history, customs, and traditions of their countries of origin, their reasons for immigrating [and] their arrival in the United States, as well as the preservation of their Sephardic heritage today.”

This is a long-term project that requires a continuous effort from those involved in it, added Benatar, who was born in Tetuan, Morocco, and who may conduct some of the interviews.

Stanley Urman, executive director of the ASF, said that “we realized that nobody is capturing the history of Jews that fled, emigrated, escaped, or were expelled from countries throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf region. This is an important chapter in Jewish history.”

The project is long overdue, he added, and “that’s why the urgency we are placing to videotape and record as many people as possible in the shortest time,” as some are dying.

“There are important pockets of Sephardim in New Jersey, many of whom we hope will be interviewed,” said Urman, who lives in West Orange.

There are about 20 Sephardic congregations and minyanim in the state in towns like Fort Lee, Teaneck, Englewood, West Orange, Highland Park, Long Branch, and Deal, but not large Sephardic communities to speak of, with the exception of the latter, where Syrian Jews make up about 16 percent of the population.

“Sephardic,” in the narrow sense, refers to Jews who trace their roots to the Iberian Peninsula or to their descendants, who settled in the Mediterranean basin or in countries of the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain, known in Hebrew as Sepharad, in 1492. In a broader sense, it refers to Jews who follow Sephardic liturgy, even if they didn’t originate in the Iberian Peninsula. (Sephardic liturgy is not to be confused with Nusach Sfarad, a liturgy followed by some Ashkenazi Jews.) Jews of Asian or North African descent are known as Mizrahim, Hebrew for “Easterners.”

The ASF project will include Jews with ties to the Iberian Peninsula as well as Mizrahim.

According to a 2002 study by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, there are some 600,000 Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the United States. In the first phase of the project, which started in August and ended in late October, the interview was pilot-tested and “six or seven” people, of 10, were interviewed, said Urman.

“We hope to hear from people who want to be interviewed or who want to be trained as interviewers,” he said. The ASF will arrange the training locally for New Jersey residents who are interested, he added.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with Jewish day schools in New Jersey and have this [the interviews] as a project of the students themselves,” he said. “It’s more relevant when they interview their own family members.”

The ASF has trained 16 students of the Brooklyn-based Magen David Yeshiva High School, who will conduct as many interviews, he added.

The third and last phase of the project will go from next June to Dec. 31, 2015, when the ASF expects to have completed the 5,000 interviews.

In some cases, foreign-born parents will be interviewed with their American-born children. In others, the children will tell stories about their parents and stories they heard from their grandparents, Urman said.

Each interviewee will receive a copy of the interview on a DVD.

The interviews, which can be up to two hours long, will be preserved in the ASF headquarters in Manhattan and, depending on the money raised, the organization will publish educational materials, books, and videos at the end of the project, said Urman.

According to Shelomo Alfassa, who is coordinating the project and did the bulk of the initial interviews, there are two different questionnaires: one for Jews from Arab countries and one for Jews from the Balkans, Turkey, and Greece.

The questionnaire that will be used in the United States was designed by the ASF with input from professors Henry Green, of the Jewish Studies Department of the University of Miami, and Margalit Bejarano, of the Oral History Division of The Avraham Hartman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Participants will be asked about life in their countries of origin, the need to leave when the social and political situation worsened, life in other countries before they settled in the United States, and how they rebuilt their lives here.

The immigration of Sephardic Jews to the United States goes back to pre-colonial times. In 1654, 23 Sephardic Jewish refugees fled from Portuguese-controlled Recife, in Brazil, and landed in New Amsterdam, now Manhattan. Subsequently, more Sephardic Jews of Portuguese Dutch background arrived in the thirteen colonies and founded communities and congregations in Newport, R.I.; Philadelphia; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga.

More than 3,000 Jews from the Ottoman Empire, both Arabic and Ladino speakers, came to the United States between 1885 and 1908.

Some 10,000, mostly Ladino speakers from Turkey, arrived after 1908, many of whom settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. City officials, in cooperation with Jewish organizations, concerned about overcrowded conditions there, “relocated” many in several parts of the country, among them Raritan, in Somerset County.

At one time, nearby New Brunswick was home to the largest Sephardic community in the United States outside New York City, write authors Patricia Ard and Michael Aaron Rockland in “The Jews of New Jersey” (Rutgers University Press). Cong. Etz Ahaim, the best-known Sephardic synagogue in the state, was established there in 1929 and moved to Highland Park, across the river. Its current building was inaugurated in 1963.

But Sephardic Jews made the Garden State their home much earlier. Historians believe that Aaron Louzada settled in Bound Brook as early as 1698. Daniel Nuñez served as town clerk in Piscataway in the early 1700s, and David Naar, born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, of Portuguese background, was appointed mayor of Elizabeth in 1843.

For more information, call (917) 606-8262 or write info@sephardicoralhistory.org

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