22 August 2010

Seattle: Sephardic synagogue celebrates 100 years

When Tracing the Tribe was in Seattle for the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in July, we toured landmarks of the Jewish community. Among them was the Sephardic Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The group received a personal welcome and tour from former Hazzan Isaac Azose (a close friend of our Seattle family), who had been the congregation's hazzan for some 34 years. He also presented a Seattle Jewish history session at the AJL event and presented a rousing Ladino version of the birkat hamazon at a conference luncheon.

The congregation will celebrate its first-century mark today, as noted in the JT News, which carried the story of the celebration.

The anniversary of Ezzie Bezzie - as it is known to insiders - will be celebrated August 22 at a gala dinner. The event also included two major speakers: Dr. Aron Rodrigue of Stanford University spoke about life in Rhodes on August 12, while Seattle native Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel (rabbi emeritus of New York's Shearith Israel, and founder/director, lnstitute of Jewish ldeas and ldeals) spoke on August 19.

A new courtyard will be dedicated with a memorial inscribed in six languages honoring the congregation's founders on the Greek island of Rhodes. It is a replica of the black granite memorial in Rhodes, dedicated to that vibrant Sephardic Jewish community before they were transported to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In July 1944, the Germans moved with relentless precision into Rhodes and nearby Kos, and deported all but 50 of the 2,000 Jews who lived there, a mere three months before they were defeated. Those 50 Jews that held Turkish citizenship were protected by the Turkish consulate. Only 151 Rhodesli Jews survived the Holocaust. Thirty-five Jews live in Rhodes today.
The story stressed that although Ezra Bessaroth is an Orthodox synagogue, most members are not, and it is a diverse community repersenting all levels of observance. However, the congregation continues its responsibility to continue the traditions of the founders, who came from Rhodes.

When the first Jewish immigrants from Rhodes began their new lives in Seattle in 1904, others soon followed. Soon, they would need a “kehilla,” the Sephardic word used for a synagogue. More like a Jewish brotherhood in its first incarnation in 1909, the Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes, the Fund for the Aid of the Poor People of Rhodes, was organized. Its first building was located at 9th and Yesler in Seattle and the monthly membership dues were 25 cents.

Today, a congregation that decades ago held daily services in the Spanish-Hebrew hybrid language of Ladino, now uses nearly all Hebrew and English, with only a few prayers in Ladino.
According to a former board member Joel Benoliel, “Here we are, a hundred years later, with the prayer and the ‘minchag,’ or customs that are exactly the same customs as it was 100 years ago on Rhodes.” He serves on the program committee for the celebration and is master of ceremonies at the events related to the centennial and gala. “We think it’s one of the few synagogues in the world that is faithful to the customs of the Isle of Rhodes,” he added.

The challenge for the future is to grow, and it is bringing in a new rabbi - Rabbi Daniel Hadar - with a strong background in outreach and growth. The congregation is looking for him to help with outreach and strengthen their Sephardic heritage while maintaining ties with non-Sephardic members.

For more about the congregation, click here, and read the complete article at the link above.

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