An exclusive conversation with Rabbi Haim Benoliel, celebrating 50 years of devotion to our community
Affectionately called the “Painted Shul,” Congregation Bnai Yosef’s main sanctuary glistens with colorful floor-to-ceiling murals painted by artist Archie Rand. The murals cover every inch of its 13,000 square-foot space, and depict a history of Jewish thought and culture, both Biblical and Kabbalistic.
This cacophony of color rivals the melodious chanting of the tefillot and the vigorous back and forth of Torah study. With an estimated 2,000 daily congregants, the distinguished Syrian-Sephardic synagogue that stands on the corner of Ocean Parkway and Avenue P is a hub of activity. It is the primary destination of those accessing its multiple minyanim and a broad array of Torah classes. The shul’s customs may be Syrian, but it attracts men and women from all walks of life – Chassidic, Ashkenazic, as well as Sephardim from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, and throughout the Middle East, who are all warmly welcomed into its hallowed halls.
It has been 50 years since Bnai Yosef’s was founded in 1968 by a group of young community members. The explosion of congregants and activity that took off in earnest in the 1980’s and 1990’s is in sharp contrast to its humble beginnings when, as board member David Sitt recalls, the synagogue barely scraped together a second minyan. But as the Flatbush Syrian community grew in numbers, so did the shul. This newfound dynamism, David Sitt says, is “a tribute to our community that’s grown to the point where praying with a minyan and limud Torah are primary.”
It is also a tribute to Bnai Yosef’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Haim Benoliel, whose vision and astute leadership over the past half-century set the synagogue’s direction, as well as impacted the greater Sephardic community-at-large. “Rabbi Benoliel understands that our true heritage lies in the strength of our Torah and our rabbis, and he has helped to guide our community back to our heritage of yore,” David Sitt says.
Only four years after the shul’s founding, Rabbi Benoliel – together with his brother-in-law, Rabbi David Lopian – started Yeshivat Mikdash Melech. In the process, Rabbi Benoliel inspired hundreds of talmidim, including scores who went on to assume the mantle of leadership. These included Shaare Torah’s Rabbi Moshe Kuessos, a”h, Yad Yosef ’s Rabbi David Ozeri, Bet Shaul U’Miriam’s Rabbi David Cohen, Har Halebanon’s Rabbi David Jemal, Shaare Zion’s Rabbi Moshe Lagnado, and veteran educators Rabbis Selim Shalam and Shlomo Wadiche, among numerous others. Collectively, they changed the face of Sephardic Jewry in America.
By founding Mikdash Melech, the first Sephardic yeshiva gedolah in the Western Hemisphere, and later its Israel branch in Jerusalem, Rabbi Benoliel initiated the yeshiva movement in the Sephardic community. Other rabbis soon followed in Rabbi Benoliel’s footsteps. Rabbi Isaac Dwek opened a kollel – in addition to yeshivot for boys and girls – in Deal, New Jersey, appointing Rabbi Shlomo Diamond as rosh kollel. When Rabbi Yosef Harari-Raful established Yeshivat Ateret Torah, initially as an elementary school, many Mikdash Melech alumni formed its parent body. Rabbi Hillel Haber later founded Yeshivat Shaare Torah.
“Today, our young men attend yeshivot and comport themselves as B’nei Torah. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, living a yeshiva and kollel life was a rarity in our community. In founding these institutions, Rabbi Benoliel fought against the stream, and established the pattern for other community rabbis to follow,” says long time congregant and confidant Andre Heskiel.
Speaking from his home in Flatbush, Rabbi Benoliel reminisces about his fifty years of service to his congregation and his community. He shares his thoughts on the role of the rabbinate, the challenges that continue to confront New York’s Sephardic community, and his years of study in Yeshiva Bais HaTalmud. He also speaks lovingly of his esteemed mentors, including his uncle, Rabbi Solomon Maimon, shlit”a, and his father-in-law, Rav Yisrael Mendel Kaplan, zt”l.
Q: Why did you pick the rabbinate and chinuch as career choices?
Rabbi Benoliel: When I grew up in Seattle, Washington, Sephardic yeshivot didn’t exist in America. I first went to yeshiva at the age of 15, traveling to Chicago to study at Beis Medrash L’Torah (it has since relocated to Skokie, Illinois). Even while subsequently studying at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Bais HaTalmud in the 1960s, I existed in my private world, immersed in Torah learning, and unaware of the Syrian community. I credit Rav Mendel Kaplan, the father of my late wife, Rebbetzin Tzirel Benoliel, and my uncle, Rabbi Solomon Maimon, rabbi emeritus of the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle, Washington, with directing me towards the Sephardic community. The former encouraged me to seek out Brooklyn’s Sephardic Jews; while the latter introduced me to Rabbi Dr. Herbert C. Dobrinsky from Yeshiva University and author of ATreasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs. He, in turn, connected me with the leadership of Bnai Yosef, which was then called Congregation Magen David of Ocean Parkway, and was looking for a rabbi for their fledgling synagogue.
[Rebbetzin Tzirel Benoliel played a crucial role in the rabbi’s success, tending to their children and encouraging him in his avodat hakodesh. A private person by nature, most of her devotion to the community occurred behind the scenes. After the Rebbetzin’s passing in 2016, the rabbi married Rebbetzin Anita Preis of Baltimore.]
Q: As a bachur, you studied at Bais Medrash Le’Torah (Hebrew Theological College) in Chicago and later as an avrech at Bais HaTalmud in the East New York section of Brooklyn, both Ashkenazi yeshivot. How did these institutions prepare you for your position as rabbi of a Syrian synagogue?
Rabbi Benoliel: Some people study in preparation for the rabbinate and for a career in chinuch. That wasn’t my formula. I studied Torah for its own sake. Both of these Torah institutions which I attended offered me tremendous opportunities to grow in Torah knowledge. In Chicago, I became close to the yeshiva’s mashgiach, Rav Moshe Wernick, zt”l, an alumnus of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe. He took a personal interest in my development. What attracted me to Bais HaTalmud, an offshoot of the Mirrer Yeshiva, was another rebbi of mine in Chicago, Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, my future father-in-law, with whom I felt close even before I harbored any thoughts of marrying his daughter. [Rav Kaplan escaped from Europe together with his family and the Mirrer Yeshiva by way of Shanghai.] Even as a young man – I was 15 when I came to Chicago and 20 when I left – I recognized how unique he was. I remember wanting to experience the garden that produced such a beautiful flower as he. The yeshiva didn’t disappoint. In Bais HaTalmud, my exceptional teachers encompassed the mesorah of their great rebbeim. It was a privilege to be in such an environment. Even as a Sepharadi, I felt extremely comfortable. They encouraged my development and later entrusted me with teaching responsibilities. I taught Chumash and then graduated to giving a full-time gemara shiur.
Even surrounded by these Askenazic gedolim and rabbanim at Bais HaTalmud, I always retained my Sephardic identity. I still prayed with my nusach, my pronunciation, and my minhagim. I had the learning background of the Ashkenazim, but the worldview and feeling of the Sephardim. When I felt ready to share what Torah knowledge I had with others, my uncle encouraged me to reach out to the Sephardic community. He said, “Haim, it’s time to open the perfume bottle.” When you learn and appreciate Hashem’s Torah, he told me, you want to share it. For me, Bnai Yosef proved an excellent shidduch because I wanted to share Torah and my congregants wanted to receive it. In many regards, it was a rabbi’s dream job: Its lay leaders never played politics; their sole intention was to augment Torah and acts of hesed.
Q: Were you comfortable within the Syrian community?
Rabbi Benoliel: Very much so. Even though I grew up in a Turkish community, our minhagim are very similar. [Rabbi Benoliel’s maternal grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Maimon, served as the spiritual leader in Tekirdag, Turkey before settling with his family in Seattle where he became rabbi of the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation.] I loved the Syrian community then, as I do now. It is my adopted community.
Q: As a young rabbi, what challenges did you face?
Rabbi Benoliel: Today, in Bnai Yosef, as is the case in many other shuls, shiurim in humash, gemara, halacha, and Zohar are booming. Over the past fifteen years, we’ve brought in many excellent young talmidei hachamim such as Rabbis Uziel Admoni, Eli David, and Maoz Raful who inspire the young and old to study Torah. People want to be part of the action.
That was not always the case. In 1968, the shul was very small and situated in a temporary location. At the time, three or four people might show up for a class. Congregants were also not as knowledgeable as they are today regarding halachah. The congregants, however, were very receptive to being taught. They come from a great heritage in Aleppo and Damascus with a tradition of baalei batim learning and loving Torah. I would relate stories of what life was like in the Syria of old, up to the early 20th Century. The Syrian Jewish community is an ancient community that goes back to the time of the second BetHamikdash.
The average layman in Syria also invested a lot of time in daily Torah learning. On Motzaei Shabbat, the men made Havdalah and then rushed back to the Bet K’neset – they wanted to start the week with a “siman tov,” so that they would conduct their business al pi Torah. This idea of returning to the shul following Havdalah is unique to the Syrian community. We follow through with this tradition today. From November to March, Bnai Yosef – like many other shuls – has shiurim taking place after Havdalah from 5:30 pm till after 7:00 pm.
Q: In what ways are the challenges different today?
Rabbi Benoliel: When I started out, I spoke about the dangers of television and the need to give our children a yeshiva education. Today, everyone sends their kids to yeshiva, and the danger of television pales in comparison to the challenges of technology and the internet, which are taking their toll in every community and play a role in undermining family life – and even destroying it. We talk about these challenges a lot – about how we need to fortify ourselves with Torah values and strengthen our children’s Torah education. It’s not enough to send them to a proper yeshiva; the home must be the primary mishkan of our time.
This time of year, I use an analogy that’s timely for Pesach. Ideally, we have biyur chametz– getting rid of the chametz, which is symbolically equivalent to distancing oneself from evil. But we also have a concept called bitul, or nullification. What can we do when confronted with evil? We must perceive it as a nothing, as a paper tiger.
Q: How can people create a positive tefillah experience both in and out of the synagogue, especially women who don’t attend shul regularly?
Rabbi Benoliel: We are very proud of our Sephardic communities that extend much kavodto tefillah in shuls, especially at Bnai Yosef. Still, kavana in tefillah is a subject we regularly discuss, as we don’t want prayer to become mechanical. Not enough attention, though, is given to the women. That said, women are nurturers, and their families are usually foremost in their thoughts and prayers. The time they dedicate to their families and small children is Kodesh Kodashim. We serve Hashem in many ways, including by building healthy relationships with those close to us. As significant as praying with a siddur and attending shiurim are, there are other ways of serving Hashem that are equally important.
Q: Arguably, your Shabbat derasha attracts the most listeners. How do you decide what to talk about?
Rabbi Benoliel: I usually have a list of topics, which I try to tie into the Parashat Hashavuah, and that includes delivering some practical lesson. Throughout the years, I’ve also gotten to know many of my congregants intimately. They trust me enough to confide their concerns in me; this offers me insight into what matters to them.
Preparing for these sermons is undoubtedly intellectually stimulating. I draw from a reservoir of information. Still, I try to come up with new material and not just to fall back on the old. I discovered a sefer written 400 years ago by the hachamim of Italy, and I quote from it regularly. That and many other sefarim provide insights and inspiration; they keep me on my toes.
Q: Given how busy and burdened with financial responsibilities many of us are, how can we maximize the time we set aside for Torah study?
Rabbi Benoliel: Someone once asked Rav Yisrael Salanter, “I’m extremely busy with my business, and have no more than half an hour a day to dedicate myself to Torah study – should I study gemara or halachah?” He answered that he should study mussar, instead, as this discipline will help him appreciate that he, in fact, has more than half an hour to dedicate. There are all those intervals of time that slip through our fingers, whether while standing in line at a bank or waiting for a chupah to begin, as examples. We must bear in mind and appreciate the value of every minute.
Q: Yeshivat Mikdash Melech had a humble beginning. In 1972, when you founded it together with your brother-in-law, it consisted of only ten boys who occupied the back row of the Mirrer Yeshiva. For two years, the yeshiva was located in Bnai Yosef until it moved into its present location, a converted nursing home several blocks from the synagogue. Why did you feel the need to open this yeshiva, and how accepted was it within the Syrian community?
Rabbi Benoliel: It was my dream to open a Sephardic yeshiva, which didn’t exist before. Later we added a kollel to accommodate our graduates who married and wanted to continue learning. The community supported these institutions generously, but some saw them as Ashkenazic ideas that were not inherently Syrian. Nothing was further from the truth. Hacham Avraham Harari-Raful, zt”l, the uncle of Ateret Torah’s Rav Yosef Harari-Raful, and who was considered the elder sage from Aleppo, explained to me that Syrian Jewry, when studying gemara, traditionally tackled each sugya (topic) in depth, with a particular focus on Tosafot and Maharsha. In other words, the Syrian method of learning Torah didn’t differ significantly from the Lithuanian yeshiva model. Also, wealthy Syrian Jews often hosted hachamim and their families in their homes, which became one-man kollels. I told my congregants that kollels aren’t Ashkenazic inventions; Syrians invented them. Only Syrians called them midrashim rather than kollels.
Q: Why did you open a Jerusalem branch of the yeshiva?
Rabbi Benoliel: Many yeshiva high school graduates from the community who wanted to study in Israel for a year couldn’t find their niche in the Ashkenazic yeshivot. Subsequently, they returned home after a couple of months. I felt this was a wasted opportunity to change their lives for the better as well as effect positive change in the community-at-large. Mikdash Melech Jerusalem provides them with a definitive American Torah experience while making them feel at home within a Sephardic environment. [Rabbi Benoliel serves as Rosh HaYeshiva, making several annual trips to spend time with the talmidim. His son, Rabbi Avraham Benoliel, assists him in the administration of the yeshiva, while Rabbi Yaakov Maimon serves as the full-time menahel ruchani.]
Since its opening, it has attracted thousands of top Sephardic boys from English speaking Sephardic communities across the globe, such as Canada, Central America, England, Gibraltar, as well as the East and West coasts of the United States.
Q: Over the years, you’ve courageously stood up for the supremacy of Torah values and ideology. How should we combat foreign ideas that infiltrate our Torah communities today?
Rabbi Benoliel: Chazal say that a little light disperses a lot of darkness. We must develop a “geshmak,” a pleasure and appetite for learning Torah. When we taste the sweetness of Torah, we don’t have to work so hard to chase out the darkness. When Rav Meir Shapiro, the father of the Daf Yomi, built his Chachmei Lublin yeshiva in Poland, people wondered why he needed such a large building that housed over 1000 students, when there weren’t more than 100 rabbinic pulpits available in Poland to accommodate the graduates. He replied, “I’m building a yeshiva to accommodate 100 future rabbis – and 900 baalei batimwho will understand what these rabbis are talking about.” What we need is knowledgeable and discerning baalei batim who can identify foreign ideas so as to gird themselves and their communities against them.
Q: What advice do you offer young rabbis and educators starting their careers as to how to keep their congregants and students engaged in Torah, as well as inspire them to grow in their religious commitment?
Rabbi Benoliel: Love them. When congregants and students feel you honestly care about them and you’re concerned about their parnassa, shalom bayit, and other personal issues, only then are they willing to be gently rebuked when necessary. When this rebuke comes from love, it empowers the recipients rather than diminishes them.
I was very fortunate to have two powerful influences in my life. To me, my uncle, Rabbi Solomon Maimon, epitomizes the qualities of an exceptional rav. He loves every Jew; and they, in turn, feel his love. My uncle is both great and humble at the same time. He loves Torah and loves sharing it with others. My father-in-law, Rav Kaplan, was an exceptional rebbi. He had tremendous wisdom and insight. When I confront difficult circumstances, I often ask myself what he would say or do in those situations.
Q: What can parents do to help keep their children fully committed to the path of Torah?
Rabbi Benoliel: Love and love and love. Today, loving your children is more important than ever before. People, especially children, feel lost in a crowd and believe they don’t matter to anyone. Parents are so busy; everyone is always on the phone, and we’re losing our children in the shuffle. Loving them is not the same as pampering and spoiling them. We must undoubtedly teach them responsibility, but we must also give them the space to make mistakes and learn from them.
Q: It has been 50 years since you became a rabbi. How has your role helped you grow?
Rabbi Benoliel: Having to produce and present so many shiurim enabled me to dedicate much of my time to learning Torah and halachah. But, I also hope that I’ve grown in my understanding of people, and in the degree of patience necessary to hear every one of my congregants out, regardless of their status or personal issues or the amount of time required to do so. I’ve also come to appreciate the potential for good that resides within every person, as well as the strength that lies within us all.
In acknowledgment of Rabbi Benoliel’s fifty years of outstanding contribution to Congregation Bnai Yosef and the community at large, the synagogue will be dedicating a Sefer Torah in his honor and invites the community to share in this dedication.