In a literal sense, the term “Sephardim” refers to those Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain, the country known in Hebrew as “Sfarad”; however, in Israel, the term “Sephardim” is also used to refer to all Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and various countries in Asia.
The term Ashkenazim originally referred to Jews who settled in France and Germany (known in Hebrew as “Ashkenaz”) during the early part of our exile. The Ashkenazim later began to migrate to Eastern Europe and Russia.
In our previous letters, we discussed how our diverse “tribal” communities, such as Sephardim and Ashkenazim, as well as their various subgroups, should be united through a commitment to the path of the Torah. We also discussed how each of these Torah-committed communities should cherish and preserve its special customs and the particular characteristics that it uses in its Divine service, for the diversity found among these Torah-committed communities is connected to the diversity found among the 12 tribes of Israel. In the following teaching, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, a leading sage of the previous generation, refers to the importance of this diversity:
The diversity of the tribes has a positive role within the Divine plan for Israel, and we were reminded of this after the Exodus, when Hashem split the Sea of Reeds into twelve different paths – one for each tribe (Mechilata on Exodus 14:6). This positive role can only be fulfilled, however, when all the tribes are devoted to a common spiritual goal, and when there is mutual respect for the unique role of each tribe in the achievement of that goal. (Cited in the ArtScroll biography, “Reb Yaakov” by Yonason Rosenblum)
Just as we respect the unique role of “our” own tribe within Israel, so too, we should respect the unique role of the “other” tribe within Israel. In this spirit, I would like to tell you a “love story” regarding Sephardim and Ashkenazim which is taking place within my neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. (The name, “Bayit Vegan” – pronounced “Bayit V’Gan” – means, “house and garden.”)
Before I tell you this love story, I first need to tell you more about our neighborhood, which is located on a high mountain in the southwest of Jerusalem at the edge of the Jerusalem Forest. The vast majority of Bayit Vegan residents are Torah-committed Jews; moreover, the majority of the Torah-committed residents are Chareidi (fervently Orthodox), and they include Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Sephardic population is increasing due to the many Sephardic Jews from France that are moving into the neighborhood. (France has many Sephardic Jews who moved there from North Africa.)
In Israel, the term “yeshiva” refers to a school of advanced Torah study for young men or teenage boys. Bayit Vegan is known for its yeshivot, as well as for its seminaries of advanced Torah study for women. I enjoy talking with students from the various Ashkenazic and Sephardic yeshivot in our neighborhood; moreover, their devotion to Torah study and their loving concern for others is a source of inspiration for me.
One of the noted sages of Bayit Vegan is Rabbi Yehudah Adas – a Sephardic sage who is loved and respected by the entire community; in fact, whenever he speaks in public, all sectors of the community come to hear him. About twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Adas decided to engage in an experiment of love. He started a yeshiva where Sephardim and Ashkenazim could study Torah together and learn to respect the unique traditions and approaches of the “other” community.
The name of the yeshiva which Rabbi Adas started and currently leads is “Kol Yaakov.” Through studying and praying together, as well as living together in the same dormitory, the young men at Kol Yaakov develop a love for their fellow students from the “other” community. The love that they have for each other overflows to others. For example, during my first few years in Bayit Vegan, a friend with a paraplegic disability, who was then living in the neighborhood, would often invite me to join him and his wife for the Friday night Shabbos meal. After each Friday night meal, a group of young men from Kol Yaakov would come and visit my friend. There would then be a lively Torah discussion combined with beautiful singing, and a moving highlight of the evening was the circle dance, which included my friend in his wheelchair. I wish I had the words to describe the light that shone on my friend’s face during the dancing. There was a loving, joyous, and unifying spirit in the room which caused us to feel closer to Hashem and each other.
It is this spirit which can hasten the arrival of the messianic age, when everyone will be able to sing:
“A Song of Ascents by David: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:2)
In 1980, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, who was close to ninety years old, traveled to the international gathering of Agudath Israel in Jerusalem. During this trip, Rabbi Kamenetsky made a special effort to visit Yeshiva Kol Yaakov in Bayit Vegan, where he addressed the teachers and students. In stressing the great importance of the unifying spirit of this yeshiva, he told his audience that when the Moshiach – Messiah – arrives, he will come to visit Kol Yaakov!
May the Moshiach arrive speedily, and may we greet him with love and joy.
Shalom Rav – Much Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
The ratio between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim at Kol Yaakov is about 50/50; thus, neither group dominates the yeshiva. The students pray together, with the exception of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when each community has its own services, so that the students can experience the special High Holiday melodies and liturgical customs of their own community. When they pray together during the rest of the year, they use a liturgy known as Nusach Sfard – a fusion of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic liturgy which is popular among Chassidim.