16 April 2007

A world-class Sephardic heritage center in Seattle?

I love Seattle, and on my last brief visit in November, I spent Shabbat with cousins Larry and Janet (Benezra) Jassen, had Shabbat dinner at their home with the older generation, Charlie and Rose, kids, spouses, a grandchild, cousins, and the delightful Hazzan Isaac Azose. I'm looking forward to my next visit in July.

Many Sephardic Jews - in fact, the largest number outside of Israel - live in the city, having arrived a century ago from the island of Rhodes (where Janet's family is from) and Turkey. The community is very close-knit and everyone seems to know everyone else.

Rabbi Cohen-Scali of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth wants to see a world-class Sephardic Center built in Seattle. It would become the number one resource for anyone who wants to research Sephardim. It would host speakers and focus on Sephardic community history in all its aspects, including Ladino, theater and food.

Of course, I'm hoping Sephardic genealogy will be an important aspect.

"The plan includes the most comprehensive and complete and rich library, focusing mainly on Sephardic literature, but of all kinds: halachah, history,” Cohen-Scali says. “Most of the Middle Ages rabbis were from Spain."

Though the center would touch on different communities, its primary focus would be on the Ladino-speaking community. He says he wants to use new video and audio technology to collect and preserve the different songs and liturgies of different Ladino-speaking and other Sephardic traditions.

"I am not talking about a small thing," he says, "because that is already being done. There is a Sephardic center that deals with Jews in Los Angeles. There are centers in universities which deal with the Ladino language. There is a Sephardic Jew who is a publisher in Israel, who publishes books by rabbis from Rhodes. We have a publication that publishes in Belgium in Ladino."

If this is the place for a major Sephardic cultural institution, then now, Cohen-Scali believes, is the time. He is working toward an official public launch of the idea sometime later this year, the 100th anniversary of the first Rhodesli Jews — the Jews from the Isle of Rhodes — coming to this city.

"That is a very significant and an appropriate time to launch such an idea,” he says."

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