In this session fellows explored the current revival and reclamation of Mizrahi and heritage in Israel. The session was facilitated by Barak Loozon, director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s (SFJCF) Israel office. In this capacity Barak has helped to elevate and support the voices and work of many Mizrahi scholars, artists, activists, and organizations in Israel.
Prior to his work with the SFJCF Barak worked at the Institute for Democratic Education in Israel and led the implementation of the “Bat-Yam Model for Personalized Education,” a model which was adopted by the Ministry of Education and became the National Education Reform called “New Horizons.” Barak also worked as the National Education Director & Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) and as the movement emissary to the United States. He holds a B.A. from Bar Ilan University in Criminology and Political Science, a Master’s in Education Policy and Administration from Tel Aviv University, as well as a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow. Barak and his wife Keren are the proud parents of five boys, living in Kibbutz Einat, Israel.
The moment I saw JIMENA’s announcement about their first Sephardic Leaders Fellowship, I knew I would do whatever necessary to be part of this learning cohort. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, who was born and raised in Omaha, went to university in Atlanta, and moved to San Francisco about 4 years ago – not exactly who you’d think you’d find in a Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. I name all of this because in all my years involved in the Jewish world, this is my first experience fully immersing myself in Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli education and culture – WHAT?! How has it taken this long to get here? To me, this illustrates the deep and urgent need for Jewish communities and institutions to fully embrace, promote, and include Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jews within our spaces. And it’s on folks like me to do the heavy lifting in making this happen.
Here’s where I propose we start:
Stop to reflect, but don’t stop there! In one of our very first fellowship meetings, I heard my cohort members share about the ways in which they felt both unseen and couldn’t see themselves reflected in their Jewish communities. Upon hearing this, I felt so many things at once – a heavy sadness in my heart, deep anger and disappointment in my Jewish community, and a sense of guilt. How have I, as a white, Ashkenazi Jew, perpetuated this within the Jewish community? It’s not an easy question to reckon with, and while I still find myself reflecting on this every day, I’ve kept moving forward. For the past few years, my team at San Francisco Hillel and I make a point of serving Sephardic jeweled rice alongside tzimmes at Erev Rosh Hashanah and strive to facilitate panels that always include Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli voices. These are only two small examples that keep us pushing forward. Inclusion work doesn’t happen overnight; it’s life work. And, until we have more representation in our leadership spaces, it’s incumbent on the existing leaders to make an effort. And to my fellow Ashkenazi leaders – take the time to deeply reflect, but don’t stop there. I believe we all have the strength and obligation to leverage our positional power to amplify understanding and inclusion. Take the time to listen, ask questions, and learn. And then keep moving toward our ultimate goal of embracing those who have felt most erased in our communities.
In order to amplify voices from within our community, they must already be in the room. This feels somewhat obvious, but how many of us reading this have sat through lectures, panels, and events speaking about Sephardic and Mizrahi experiences without a single Sephardic or Mizrahi voice leading the conversation? This is unacceptable and must change if we ever want our Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli friends to actually see themselves within our institutions and communities. Next time you host an event discussing Sephardic Jewish in America, invite Dr. Mijal Bitton. When hosting a seminar on DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) practices in the Jewish community, invite Rabbi Daniel Bouskila to facilitate a text study on the ancient Sephardic practices of DEI. And, when hosting a panel on antisemitism today, ensure Dr. Sharon Nazarian is a featured panelist. As we uplift Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli voices within our spaces, we get closer to ensuring every voice is heard.
Let’s celebrate more than food and music. Yes, shakshuka is my ultimate comfort food and yes, A-WA is my favorite Israeli band, AND, my celebration of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli culture cannot stop there. To fully embrace Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jews in our Jewish institutions and communities, we must do so authentically and holistically. How are we utilizing resources like HeHaCham Hayomi (The Daily Sage) to ensure our text studies are diverse and representative of sages from across the Jewish world? When we teach our students, friends, and community members about Jewish life cycle events, are we incorporating lessons on la fijola or las fadas, the Sephardic baby naming ceremony where the newborn’s family gathers to sing songs, wish her blessings, and announce the baby’s name? What about when we teach about Passover – are we ensuring Mimouna is as essential in our lesson plans as the 10 Plagues? And when are we creating a petition for Duolingo to add Ladino to the languages you can learn on their app? When we incorporate the full richness of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jewish culture, history, language, and customs, we will see a true sense of belonging.
I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to have learned with and from an incredible cohort of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli educators and leaders, and for organizations like JIMENA that do the hard work of amplifying and uplifting our community every day. You all inspire me to be a better Jewish professional and community member. May we soon see the day when our friends, family members, and loved ones no longer feel erased by their Jewish community but instead, fully embraced.
I was born in London. My parents were born in Bahrain. My grandparents were born in India, Bahrain and Iraq. My great grandparents were born in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq. I grew up in London, where we belonged to a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. I spent my formative years surrounded by a cacophony of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, speaking Judeo-Arabic and eating Iraqi-Bahraini-Indian-Persian food at family gatherings. What does that make me? I have always felt like an ‘other’.
Fast forward a few years, and I find myself teaching 10 year olds Jewish Studies in a Jewish day school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the freedom to look at the school’s long standing curriculum with a critical eye, I began to examine the materials to which our students were exposed. To my surprise and delight, I saw that the 5th grade school year would start off with the students learning about the Rosh HaShanah seder, traditionally held by Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews. I opened the booklet and these words, the opening words, jumped out at me: A seder for Rosh Hashanah? Have we lost our minds? Are we talking about the correct holiday? My heart sank. I was not about to teach a classroom full of 5th graders that this centuries old tradition of my family and half the world’s Jewish population was an oddity born either from insanity or ignorance! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
I was fortunate enough to attend the JIMENA conference in San Francisco in January 2019 and learned about the very-soon-to-be-published JIMENA curriculum for Jewish day schools. I grabbed it with both hands, adapted it to suit my 5th graders, and built a month-long unit of study with JIMENA’s 12 part curriculum as my foundation. Our learning in 5th grade was varied and meaningful with lessons on the geography of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews; their expulsion from their homelands and the creation of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands; the symbolism and meaning behind the khamsa and its connection to tzedakah; traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi folktales; and yes, we made moufleta for Mimouna but we also learned so much more.
During the last lesson of the unit this year, having taught it successfully for the second consecutive year, I patted myself on the back for exposing my students to Jewish culture, traditions and history that they had never heard of and supporting such rich and diverse learning. One of my students raised a polite hand and asked if we were now going back to learning about “regular Jewish things”. And just like that, it hit me. I had done it all wrong. I had squashed the Sephardi/Mizrachi Jewish experience into a single month of my teaching year. I was setting it aside and making it ‘other’. I was devastated. That well-meaning 10 year old brought my spirits crashing down, but I picked myself up and resolved to do better next year.
Next year, I plan to break my month-long unit of study into mini-units, dispersing them throughout the school year and teaching them between the “regular Jewish things” on my curriculum. Next year, my students won’t start and then finish their learning of the Sephardi/Mizrachi experience because that experience is an integral part of the Jewish story, not a sub-unit. Next year, I will weave all those elements together. Next year… I’m rolling up my sleeves again.
I spend a lot of time thinking about names. Sometimes that’s due to my lifelong interest in pop culture and my sense of curiosity, is that their stage name or their real one? Other times, it’s linked to introspective personal development. I remember, when I was younger I thought about my name, in particular, how I was the only Leah in my grade – public kindergarten through high school and Hebrew school all the way through post-confirmation. Somehow, my other friends were given more common identities: Amanda, Alyssa, Kevin, Rache(a)l, Jeremy. Coming from a plentifully Jewish community, now I think about how we got here. In this Fellowship, those thoughts and questions turned into Dr. Devin Naar’s session on structural racism playing a huge role in the development of what we today call “Ashkenormativity,” or the stereotypical practices of Judaism in the United States. Even if my childhood friends’ family’s deepest roots come from Spain, the Mediterranean, or North Africa, they might not even know it because of how we intentionally assimilated out of Sephardic Jewish America into predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish America.
At the beginning of the Fellowship, we were tasked with bringing a “cultural asset” to the community. While most of this cohort shared family recipes or garments of clothing, I talked about my name and why this is my core identity to my Sephardic heritage. I’ve always known that I’m a mutt with my mom’s side bringing an Ashkenazi background and my dad’s side contributing a Sephardic half, but growing up in the mid-Atlantic East Coast, I never knew anyone else who wasn’t purebred Ashkenazi. I’ve also always known that when it came to naming my older sister and then eventually me, my parents wanted to celebrate both traditions. In Ashkenazi communities, babies are named a deceased family member, but in Sephardic tradition, the opposite is true. In order to make both ends meet, my sister’s first name is for our Sephardic half and her middle name is for the Ashkenazi half. Of course, my first name is for our Ashkenazi half and my middle name is for the Sephardic.
Names are just as important on a large scale in Judaism as they are to me on an individual level. Most well-known is in Genesis 32:29 with the name change of the patriarch Jacob to Israel. Globally and historically, names carry a lot of power in Judaism, and I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. Additionally, in the Jewish diaspora, many people have their common name (for me, my English name) and a Hebrew name (the one used when I am called to the Torah). I shared this as my cultural asset before our Fellowship kicked off, and I left our first session overwhelmed in shock at how many of my co-Fellows had non-Ashkenazi names.
While the Fellowship has been entirely online due to the pandemic, Zoom has been our greatest asset. For logistical purposes, we all post our identities (first/last name, sometimes professional association, and gender pronouns) to create a space where we can see who is on the call. For the first time, I was surrounded by a community of non-Aaron’s, non-Marissa’s, non-Alex’s. There are no Goldbergs or Silvermans. This cohort looks like me and sounds like me, and finally, I don’t feel so unusual. It’s common practice for me to put my first name spelled phonetically on Zoom (Lee-uh) because I’m so used to having it mispronounced. This Fellowship makes me feel like I don’t have to, because ironically or maybe unfortunately, I’m with people who are accustomed to having to correct others. It’s beautiful and exciting to be in this space – even virtually – with other people who really understand.
I’m grateful for the community that JIMENA built between all of us. As a young professional who is new to the Bay Area, it’s made a world of difference to me that I know that I am surrounded by like-minded and similarly named Jewish mutts. I’m energized to continue exploring my mixed identity, especially now that I have the resources and relationships for lifelong learning. JIMENA and this cohort is the foundational toolkit for what has yet to come. Much like how names are passed down and honored, so too is my Ashkephardi (a word my friend used to describe my ethnic fusion) resilience.
I didn’t realize just how much I needed a space like this. I am a Mizrahi Jew: my grandparents are from Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq; Tripoli, Libya; and Cairo, Egypt. They all moved to Israel in the twentieth century, which is where my parents (and I) were born.
Going to school in the United States (by way of Canada), I was active in Jewish communities on university campuses. But most of the time, I was in the minority. In college, I might have been the only Mizrahi Jew. I felt oftentimes unsure of how to relate to communities where Ashkenazi traditions were the norm (a term I recently learned to describe this is “Ashkenormative”).
Being a part of JIMENA’s Sephardic Leaders Fellowship was such a reminder of what I’d been missing. For the first time, I was in a room with people unrelated to me whose families came from similar countries. In sharing customs and cultural stories, we see our shared heritage reflected in each other’s lives. I didn’t know how much a space like this would make me feel welcomed and seen.
One of our first speakers, Dr. Mijal Bitton, addressed some of the Sephardi invisibility in American Jewish communities. When it comes to Sephardic and Mizrahi identity in Jewish studies, she said, “it’s not that there’s so much debate. It’s that there’s not any debate.” Within an Ashkenormative culture, Sephardi Jews – though we represent a sizable portion of the American Jewish population – are often made invisible. (Of course, this would be an even more excluding experience for Black Jews and Jews of Color.)
Dr. Bitton discussed how Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are, at best, treated as a monolith in the Jewish community, when in reality, we represent different nationalities, political views, and traditions. And, Dr. Bitton shared, in the United States, Mizrahi is usually a term used by others to describe Sephardic Jews – but not by these communities themselves. Diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (DEI) require that we engage with all of the different identities in the Jewish community.
So much of what Dr. Bitton said resonated with me – and a lot of it surprised me. I do in fact identify as Mizrahi – but I also know that my aunts and uncles would never refer to themselves in that way. They are Iraqi, or Tripolitai, or Masri. Realizing this gave me pause, as I wondered how I might identify myself in a way that honors all of these truths. It also made me reflect upon the ways in which I might contribute to a Jewish community that is diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just.
Dr. Bitton’s talk deepened my perspectives on both my own Mizrahi identity, as well as Sephardi identity in the U.S. at large.