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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Why do Sephardi Children go to Ashkenazi Schools in Israel?

By Shelomo Alfassa

(June 18, 2010) In 1945 there were approximately 850,000 Jews living in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. Today, there are less than 7,000 in these 10 Arab countries, with many migrating to Israel. The current Sephardi students are from families which are mostly poor. Their parents and grandparents were uprooted and dispossessed from large old Jewish communities across North Africa and the Middle East, leaving behind all of their (often great) wealth. By the time they came to Israel, and by the time they found decent housing, which was not in governmental established tent farms, religious schools had, for the most part, already been established.

The children were sent to these established 'Ashkenazi' schools because the families did not have the fiscal fortitude or the Western world organizational skills to construct new schools from scratch. A first generation result of this can be seen by the Sephardic Jewish men wearing the long black coat and black hat of the haredi Ashkenazim. And while some Sephardim wear this clothing on the outside, they have attempted to retain their method of prayer and tradition as it was in their country of origin.

The old Sephardic establishment in Israel with allegiance and firsthand knowledge of the old Sephardic traditions and daily ways of life started to fall apart when many young men had to geographically flee for fear of being drafted into the Ottoman Army during WWI. The Sephardic establishment painfully eroded in the late 1940's when the main surviving school for rabbinical students in Jerusalem (Yeshiva Porat Yosef) was destroyed by the Arabs during the start of the Israel War of Independence.

Yeshiva Porat Yosef employed teachers which knew the old Sephardi pedagogy, one that existed from the time of the Jews in Spain and as practiced throughout the Ottoman Empire. Back then, the instructors hailed from Sephardic lands, such as Rabbi Shelomo Laniado whose family came from Spain via Turkey then Syria before arriving in Jerusalem. The rabbis educated Sephardic young men in the ways of Jewish law and tradition in the traditional Sephardic manner, this included a great emphasis on Bible and ethical studies (Tanakh) over concentrated legal arguments (Gemara) which the Ashkenazim favored. Another death knell was borne in the 1950's with the passing of one of the last of the original Sephardic leaders, Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Uziel, a descendant of the Jews of Spain and a master of the 'Sephardic tradition.'

Today, the generation of Sephardic leaders, both retired and still active, often dress/look like Ashkenazim. This is often for political reasons and due to the fact that they feel they are apparently perceived as elevated and given equal status as rabbinical leaders when dressed like the majority. Why Sephardic yeshivot (schools) are scarce, is because of population--there are just many more yeshivot in the world educating the majority--Ashkenazi young men; and of course during WWII, the Germans destroyed all of the yeshivot, synagogues and libraries of the Jews from Salonika, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Monastir, Rhodes, Gallipoli, and other places which once had uniquely rich and vibrant old-world Sephardic Jewish communities.


Related article: Ashkenazi Against Sephardi Racism Lives


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© Shelomo Alfassá