Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment

The categories of religious identity the Pew and the UJA-Federation studies employed did not include one specifically for the Sephardic community, an omission that is difficult to defend given its size and distinctiveness. According to the UJA-Federation study, Sephardic Jews account for close to 16 percent of the New York area Jewish population.15 The broad division of religiously affiliated Jews among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox is generally inapplicable to the Sephardic community. There are few, if any, Conservative or Reform Sephardic synagogues or temples in the United States. For all practical purposes, Sephardic synagogues would be considered Orthodox by anyone outside of the Sephardic community, as they all have mehitzot (dividers that separate men’s and women’s sections) and follow a traditional liturgy, even though their members may not all be Orthodox in their observance of Jewish law and ritual. The further division of Orthodox Jews into Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Yeshivish is also inappropriate as these categories are legacies of European Jewish society.

The key factor of identity for Sephardic Jews is the city or country of origin of one’s family. One of the largest Sephardic communities, if not the largest, in the United States today is the Syrian community, of which there is further division between Jews who originate from Aleppo or Damascus. Other significant Sephardic communities include (in no particular order), Jews originating from Persia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen. Each of these communities has its own liturgy, ritual music, and synagogue and home customs, with some clustering of traditions whose differences are relatively less profound.
The Syrian community is known for its success in business, and there is considerable wealth within the community. The UJA-Federation study reported a significantly lower poverty rate for the Syrian community in the New York area relative to other Jews in the area.16 The community is very close-knit. Children often choose to reside upon marriage in proximate distance of their parents and maintain close relations. In recent years, Haredi yeshivot have emerged within the Syrian community that are similar in all respects, other than liturgy and certain halakhic practices, to Ashkenazic/Litvish yeshivas. Among other reasons, it is likely a manifestation of a more global change that has occurred over the past several decades, commonly attributed to the outsized influence of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and the Israeli political party he founded (Shas), in which the Sephardic community has adopted many of the values and practices of the Ashkenazic Yeshivish community.

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