Beth Hamidrash is the only Sephardic synagogue west of Ontario.
The small but mighty synagogue in Vancouver has 70 families who are active members but over 100 attend services and the High Holidays.
According to the synagogue’s members, it was founded in the late 1960s by a handful of individuals who wanted to attend a Sephardic prayer service. In the beginning, they prayed at each other’s homes, in the local Jewish elementary school gym, and in the Jewish Community Centre, driving a borrowed Sefer Torah back and forth from Seattle for the High Holidays. In 1973, they registered as a B.C. Society under the name of Sephardic Congregation but still lacked a physical space to pray.
The Sephardic Congregation were often invited to an Ashkenazi synagogue, Beth Hamidrosh B’nai Jacob, to help with the dwindling weekday minyan. The two congregations decided to merge and in 1977, Sephardic Congregation Beth Hamidrash was born.
I spoke with Rabbi Shlomo Gabay (who joined in 2018) and Eyal Daniel, president of the board of directors to gain insight on the synagogue’s members and the importance of sustaining Sephardic community and traditions in the West Coast.
Tell me about the synagogue’s members and cultural makeup of the congregation.
Eyal Daniel: The synagogue has changed in the last 50 years. The founders are from Iraq and Morocco. Today, we find there are many people more-so from South and Central America with families from Mexico and Argentina. There are a lot of Israelis as well.
Rabbi Gabay: The congregants are now the second and third generation of people who are born and bred Canadians. Their parents or grandparents founded the synagogue out of a need—a place to connect to their roots in North Africa and the Middle East. There’s a different type of vibe now. Our founders are in their 80s and 90s. They established a certain kind of spirit and energy and now it’s the younger generation who are building off those traditions to what Sephardi Jewry is in Vancouver today.
Do Mizrahi and even Ashkenazi Jews attend services?
Eyal Daniel: We still have families from Morocco, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Most of the Mexican Jews are originally from Syria. Syrian Jews are known for keeping a tight-knit community and for being traditional. Some are from Egypt, even Afghanistan. Our synagogue has some Israelis but it’s not an Israeli based synagogue. We have a few Ashkenazi families as we welcome everyone and those who converted feel they have more attention here than at other bigger Ashkenazi shuls in the city.
Has it been difficult to get new members during the pandemic?
Eyal Daniel: To look at our history, the founders are now much older and the following generation were the dominant group at the board level and with services. Most of their children didn’t attend synagogue. The next generation was missing. We wondered: where’s the younger generation? Where’s the future? During COVID-19, we found that younger people were more relaxed than those who are older and more at risk. We changed our programming to adapt to young people and soon they brought their friends, and friends of friends . . . I became president about two years ago and when COVID-19 began we realized it was the best time to rebrand ourselves as a synagogue. We updated our website; renovated the kitchen; created programs, field trips, and parties, and suddenly we were able to get people that left the synagogue back. We brought in 10 to 15 young families with children. We knew how to market ourselves and focus on the right group at the right time. This was a time to plan. It’s important to have a vision and ask, “where are you going? Where is the community developing?” That’s the only way for synagogues to survive.
Rabbi Gabay: Synagogues across North America are struggling to attract the younger generation. This generation is not interested in the commitment of what the previous one was [in their commitment to attend synagogue]. A synagogue is not just a place of prayer but a community centre where people can connect in many different ways. That’s something people relate to a lot. The programming angle, and the different elements that create community resonate with everyone.
Is there also something a Sephardic congregation offers that’s more engaging for some Jews to participate in?
Rabbi Gabay: Why is the Sephardi style different? What’s attractive about it? There’s something beautiful about the Sephardic openness. People are warm. Hugs and kisses were a big deal before COVID-19. You meet someone and you’re friends within minutes. There’s a certain openness to accepting people where they’re at. There’s no labels for different denominations. In Sephardim there’s no such thing. You’re Jewish. You can come from wherever you are and be accepted. It’s a very popular approach in today’s day and age when everything is about labels and how you’re perceived. I think it’s a breath of fresh air to come to a synagogue where you are loved for who you are and are immediately part of the community by default.
I imagine too being the only Sephardic synagogue west of Ontario, that’s quite a responsibility to bear. Can you share with me the responsibility you feel of keeping the community healthy and active and on the importance of the longevity of it?
Eyal Daniel: So, 20 per cent of Jews are Sephardic. I’m originally from Israel, so I wasn’t aware that there are so few of us [globally]. In Vancouver we’re one of the smallest synagogues. It’s really hard to get support in terms of funding and recognition. We’re marginalized in a way. Because if you’re Ashkenazi and have your own synagogue, why support us? But in the last two years we got a lot of attention. We came up with a formula that attracts people that other synagogues might not have. We’re preserving the Sephardi and Mizrahi culture. There is more support and more appreciation from the general Jewish community and we hope to increase it. We may be small but our voice is getting stronger and one of our goals is to increase our connections and networking within the Jewish community and the Jewish federation.
Rabbi Gabay: In recent years there’s been fresh interest from the younger generation to reconnect to their roots. They’re trying to figure out their identity, who they are, and where they come from. Sephardic Jewry has such a broad range of different countries and cultures. Everyone brings their food, culture, and customs. That’s a beautiful thing to have and preserve.
I’m going to pivot for my last question, can you share with me a favourite tradition you do for Passover or Purim?
Rabbi Gabay: Pesach is such a serious, traditional holiday. Everyone has their own tradition that they do. When it comes to the holiday of tradition it takes the cake. My parents are both Moroccan, and there’s one personal custom of ours that is fun and sets the tone. It’s done after the first cup of wine. The head of the household picks up the seder plate and everyone is dressed in flowing white robes and it creates a festive mood. The seder plate is waved over their heads and a song is sung: “Bibhilu yatsanu mimitsrayim” (“In a hurry we left Egypt”) and it really sets the tone.
Eyal Daniel: My father is from Syria and my mother is from Afghanistan. My mother is a Bechari Jew. When we did Pesach at my grandfather’s they have a tradition where they buy green onions and give it to each person. When you say Dayenu everyone beats the others with the onions. You dress up nicely and then you smell like the onion after! [laughing] Sadly . . . we still do that at home here.
Header photo courtesy of Beth Hamidrash.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.