By Ezra Friedlander
On November 20, Congress celebrated over 360 years of Sephardic Jewry in America, paying tribute to the contributions of the Sephardic community to the United States and Jewish culture.
This historic event brought together Sephardic leaders and was coordinated by The Friedlander Group. Yehuda Azoulay was the initiator for this momentous occasion, bringing together Sephardic Jews of all backgrounds–representing 25 cities and over 30 Sephardic organizations–for a united gathering for the first time in the U.S. Capitol. As the young innovator concluded in his speech, “The idea is to unite a Sephardic voice for the benefit and future of Sephardic Jewry.”
Yehuda Azoulay’s Sephardic Institute aspires to become the future home of publications, networking, lecture series, articles, documentary films, and other programs for Sephardic communities around the world. To that end, it seeks to pool intellectual resources by building a network of accomplished Sephardic scholars and educators to produce a corpus of quality literature covering a spectrum of topics relevant to Sephardic Jewry.
The first Jews to arrive to the United States of America were Sephardim, Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, many of whom made their journey in order to escape forced conversion in their native lands around 1550.
By 1776 and the War of Independence, around 2,000 Jews lived in America, most of them Sephardic of Spanish and Portuguese origin. They played a significant role in the struggle for independence, including fighting the British (with Francis Salvador being the first Jew to die in the war), and playing a key role in financing the revolution, the most important of the financiers being Haym Solomon.
An array of members of Congress joined the participants to show bipartisan support of the legacy and contribution of Sephardic Jewry. Senator Mike Lee of Utah applauded the Sephardic Jewish community, which contributed to the nation from the very onset of the Republic. Honoree Jacob Abecassis highlighted the fact that the Sephardic heritage is singularly unique and worthy of preservation, and that it does not belong only to history books or museums, but is very much alive and thriving. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida quoted Emma Lazarus, whose famous poem “The New Colossus” can be seen today on a bronze plaque of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Honoree Rabbi Elie Abadie also referred to Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew, whose life and contributions were highlighted at the luncheon. Honoree Daniel Harari praised America where we have rights to assemble, rights to own property, rights to fight for the country.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas compared his family’s experience to that of the Sephardic community, how his family faced oppression in Cuba and how they achieved freedom in America. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota praised the ideals of being privileged to have a voice to stand up for Israel. Congresswoman Grace Meng of New York underlined the fact that coming to a new world is not easy, and that the early Sephardic Jewish immigrants paved the way the tolerant, open and pluralistic society we all cherish. Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas focused on the unique friendship of the US and Israel.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York spoke emotionally about his personal connection to the Sephardic community and reiterated his family’s experience arriving to the shore of Ellis Island. Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, whose district includes Deal, praised the Sephardic community for its role in the development of the Deal economy. Others who participated were Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Congressman Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of the Jews from Iraq stressed the importance of saving the Iraqi Jewish Archives. Rabbi Shimon Alouf, renowned student of Chacham Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel who just passed away a few weeks ago, highlighted the legacy of his mentor. Honoree Raymond Saka, cofounder of the Saka Edition of Yalkut Yosef, laid out the plans to publish 34 books in the next 15 years to spread the teachings of Chacham Ovadia Yosef. Rabbi Joshua Maroof spoke about the desire to be open, and praised the universalistic attitude of Sephardic Jewry, who look for things that we have in common.
Yehuda Azoulay emphasized the message, “join the revolution and unite as one” to preserve Sephardic heritage, and thanked the members of Congress for carving out time from their busy schedules to celebrate together. v