Sephardic Leadership Institute will elevate Sephardi and Mizrahi voices
When Adam Eilath gives a weekly d’var Torah at Wornick Jewish School in Foster City, he always includes the wisdom of the wise. In this case, very specific sages: those exclusively from Sephardic or Mizrahi backgrounds.
This is because Eilath, who runs Wornick’s school, is the son of a Tunisian mother. He knows firsthand how the contributions of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are often overlooked and how their communities are generally underrepresented in mainstream Jewish life.
“It’s part of who I am,” Eilath said of her North African roots. “I truly believe that there are challenges we face in the Jewish community that the current reservoir of traditions, thought and history that is traditionally taught in Jewish day schools does not address. I truly believe that the experiences of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa have much to teach us.
As part of her commitment to raising their profile, Eilath sits on the advisory board of the Sephardic Leadership Institute, a new national initiative of JIMENA, the SF-based agency that champions the heritage and history of Middle Eastern Jews and from North Africa.
According to the institute’s website, Sephardic is a term used to describe Jewish populations “originating in the Iberian Peninsula and Jewish communities who identify as operating within the framework of Sephardic law and custom,” while the term Mizrahi “emerged in Israel throughout the 20th century”. century to refer to Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
The new institute aims to elevate leaders, scholars and activists from the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities into the Jewish mainstream and provide opportunities for leadership development. He also wants to create a hub of American leadership and ensure he is included in Jewish demographic and community research.
To do all of this—in addition to building knowledge and providing data on Jewish diversity—the institute’s leaders have crafted an ambitious program.
They plan to launch a comprehensive demographic study soon to assess the size and scope of communities in the United States, then strengthen them with leadership training, scholarships, networking opportunities and more.
“The Sephardic and Mizrahi communities are extremely diverse,” said Sarah Levin, now in her 13th year as executive director of JIMENA and one of the institute’s lead actors. “But we haven’t seen their heritage and their voices integrated into mainstream Jewish life. Our leaders have not been empowered and some have experienced marginalization. The Jewish community as a whole was disadvantaged by not ensuring that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and their heritage were part of daily Jewish life.
The Sephardic Leadership Institute website notes the “Ashkenormativity” of American Jewry, and that the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion demand a greater role for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
“There is no real unifier, person who brings leaders and institutions together,” Levin said. “This institute is therefore an offshoot of the work to which JIMENA has been committed” since its foundation 20 years ago.
Levin said the institute received a generous three-year, $1 million grant from the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, which is under the auspices of Jewish Together, a program of the Jewish Federations of North America.
To begin, a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a survey, which included interviews with nearly 50 rabbis, school principals, agency executives and other leaders to assess the needs and potential opportunities for Sephardic Jews and mizrahi.
“The initial data we collected articulates real-life experiences of marginalization,” Levin said. “What we’ve found is that we need a full demographic study and to sort out some of the language around identity. There’s not even a consensus on the definition of what is a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew.
She also noted that their cultures and traditions are too often reduced to celebrations of foods, forms of dress and music plagued by “exoticization”.
We have not seen their heritage and their voices incorporated into mainstream Jewish life. Our leaders have not been empowered.
Levin’s roots go back to Sephardic Turkish Jews on his father’s side. Her Turkish-born great-grandparents helped organize Chicago’s Sephardic community and also helped absorb Jewish refugees from Egypt in the 1950s. She said Sephardic and Mizrahi cultures have so much more to offer to the Jewish community at large.
“It’s not a silo thing,” she said. “It’s about integrating into the mainstream. Doing something Jewish for everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, is the goal. Not to devalue or get rid of the ways in which the Jewish community operates, but to expand and enrich it.
This is certainly Eilath’s hope. The Toronto native said he had ‘not received any special instruction in my own cultural background,’ and it wasn’t until he lived in Israel that he began to explore his northern roots. -African.
“I am part of this third generation of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East,” he said. “The first generation moved to Israel, France or America, and clung to the language and the tradition. The second generation tried to assimilate, and the third became curious.
He clung to Sephardic and Mizrahi music, piyyutim (liturgical songs), poetry and religious traditions in Israel, and today belongs to a WhatsApp group of Jews living in Tunisia. He even learned to sing Torah in the Tunisian trope.
Levin is happy that Eilath and other leaders like him are involved in the activities of the institute. In addition to the demographic study, which will be overseen by demographer Mijal Bitton of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Cohen Center at Brandeis University, Levin hopes the institute will publish a scientific journal.
By the end of the year, the institute will launch its first two cohorts of fellowships, one comprised of national leaders from the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, the other focused on college campus professionals. It will also continue a series of virtual professional development events open to everyone, and more information can be found at sefardicstudy.org.
“We have thousands of years of heritage that are being ignored,” Levin said. “We want to focus on this story and the incredible value it can add to the Jewish community.”