“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
It is a fact, pure and simple: there is no other community like ours in the world. You can ask around, Google, or get on a plane and see for yourself. So we must ask, why? What is so strong and powerful about the Syrian Jews in this little enclave of Brooklyn, NY? Why do we take care of each other and come together, in good times and in bad? Why do we reside within mere feet of each other, no matter where we are, even while on vacation? Why do we take enormous efforts in building and growing our organizations – each one lifting our community members above and beyond expectation? I dare say there is a simple answer, virtually the essence of the word “community.” It is called “unity.” This unity stems from one common thread – our history. We all share the same great-great- grandparents. We are all descended from royalty. No matter how far and wide we go or how many different schools of thought abound, we unite in this inherent need and desire to support one another. We each choose hesed, again and again; it is ingrained in our genes and in our very being. One may think that as our community gives birth to so many spinoffs our harmony is being jeopardized, but it is just not true. Forever we will be meshed and intertwined; we are one.
Joe Sitt always had a passion for the history of our community. When Rabbi Raymond Sultan alerted him about a rare book collection being sold by Magen David to raise funds, he could not bear the thought of those books being separated, or falling out of the community’s hands, so he bought the collection. He was excited and enamored. He understood the importance and the connection between past and future and he knew that time was running out. His inherent nature and sense of responsibility pushed him to continue to collect and preserve these priceless articles for generations to come. He knew it would become a job and a half, but he also knew that it might be the most important work he had ever done. Today, fifteen years later, Syria is at war, and these artifacts are more precious than ever. The collection has multiplied and flourished. Thanks to Sitt’s infatuation with our history and heritage, the rabbi’s meticulousness and the efforts of so many volunteers and dedicated workers, the compilation is now huge. It includes thousands of books, photos, videos, audiotapes, manuscripts, marriage, birth, and death certificates, and family treasures; each is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. These irreplaceable antiques have been digitized and gathered into what is now called The Sephardic Heritage Museum. Until recently, it was a museum without walls.
Last week, I took my nineteen-year-old daughter with me to visit BeitYosef, the new synagogue on Norwood Ave in Deal, New Jersey. There you can find a small sampling of these incredible artifacts in exhibits masterfully designed by David Benoliel and Margie Sarway, and displayed in a storytelling graphic exhibit written by Rabbi David Azar. Until the full museum is built, this exhibit is in place to give us a small taste of what’s to come. My daughter is a history major in college, so she welcomed the excursion. I had no idea how impressed we both would be.
Ike Chehebar and Ike Sutton, co-presidents of the SHM explain, “The goal of this museum, like any other, is to engage and educate visitors to our vast history and to share the knowledge so vital to our endurance as a community. This collection is only a small portion of the work that this museum is accomplishing, but when you connect the dots and follow the trails from the beginning, it is evident that we are indeed as one. Unlike so many other communities, our legacy is safe after all these years. We have endured.”
In the entrance, each of the components of the Museum’s work is highlighted in a different presentation. There are items not only from Syria, but from around the world, a tapestry of a community bound not by country, but by belief and tradition. My daughter and I were drawn immediately to the ornate chair used for brit milah on display. It is almost exactly the same type of chair used today, but this one originates from Yeshivat Ahaba VeAhva in Cairo, Egypt in 1928. In another section, we see more artifacts: beautiful silver Torah cases, mezuzot and books from the great shul of Aleppo, in addition to an impressive beaded chandelier that hung in the Racqy shul in Damascus. The candle lighting tray that is passed around for luck during many happy occasions is on display as well. I believe the tray we carried at my grandson’s brit was identical. All look strikingly familiar.
In the area titled “Never Forgotten” we are introduced to yet another facet of the museum’s dedication to preservation. From September 2012 until December 2016, during Syria’s civil war, the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was caught in the crossfire, and sustained heavy damage. A large number of sacred graves adjoining the synagogue were also desecrated. Since January 2017 the museum has been renovating and repairing the ravaged synagogue with the generous assistance of the Syrian government. The restoration of these graves, including many of the greatest rabbanim and hachamim, is some of the most important work the museum is accomplishing.
There are also many documents highlighted, written by different rabbis and heads of state. In a display titled “Faith Under Siege” correspondence from Rabbi Yaakov Ades and Rabbi Ben Sion Hazan to Mr. Aharon Shamash from Israel, 1948, tell the story of the fall of the Old City and the destruction of Yeshivat Porat Yosef and the adjoining synagogues. The letters are detailed and heart wrenching.
It was also news to my daughter that many men in our community served in the Armed Forces for America in both the First and Second World Wars. Relics of this time in history are on display, including beloved community member Mickey Kairey’s uniform and boots, in addition to copies of the famed Victory Bulletin, photographs, and personal memorabilia. There is a section dedicated to Moshe Mishan, who died while serving in the Israeli army in 1957, and also his brother Nat, who fought in Israel’s War of Independence. The miracles he recounts in this presentation are unbelievable.
Of course, throughout the displays you will find many familiar items including tea and coffee pots, irons, sewing machines, lanterns, jewelry boxes, wine cups, and instruments. One artifact that I appreciated was a 100-year-old bottle of Syrian wine adorned with a label instructing: to be consumed upon arrival in America.
The seven-part movie series produced by Lisa Ades and Marlene Mamiye is certainly the highlight of the Foundation’s work. As Joe Sitt explains, “As our parents and grandparents are leaving us we are losing our only witnesses to the past. It is truly a race against time.” The footage available of the synagogues and streets of Syria before they were destroyed, and the images and voices of our elders are surely the most precious artifacts. Clips and highlights from the movies run here in the shul for us to enjoy.
The Shrem Dynasty
Upstairs, the exhibits explore our story through the line of the great Rabbi Yishak Shrem, a prolific author who lived in Aleppo from 1798-1872. In an era of great hachamim and rabbis, Rabbi Shrem stands out as one of the most prominent, combining outstanding scholarship with many acts of kindness and charity. Aside from restoring his grave in the Cave of the Righteous, a tremendous accomplishment in itself, the museum has many artifacts belonging to this family, thanks to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Rabbi Shrem’s legacy was perpetuated through his four sons.
Rabbi Yosef Shrem, a great-grandson (1841- 1949), moved from Aleppo to Jerusalem at just two years old. Rabbi Yosef was a great tzaddik and talmid hacham, a kabbalist, hazan, and lecturer. After he married he was asked to travel the world to raise funds for different charities in Jerusalem. He spent most of the next 52 years visiting distant communities, later establishing a synagogue and a kollel in Jerusalem as a result of his efforts. His wife was quite the hero, too, often raising her family alone even through times of war, keeping her children safe and learned. Rabbi Yosef spoke seven languages and helped many people, giving extraordinary blessings for luck. The kabbalistic amulets he treasured as well as his eyeglasses and briefcase are on display.
As the chain continues, Rabbi Yosef’s first daughter married Abraham Tawil, who would become the first president of Magen David Congregation in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, bringing the legacy of Aleppo here, for his children and grandchildren. His son, Moe Tawil would go on to continue to focus on Torah, tradition and hazanut, serving in many communal organizations including Shaare Zion, Magen David Yeshivah, Magen David of Bradley Beach, and Deal Synagogue, all highlighted through memorabilia and photos in the museum. Moe’s daughter, Sheila Shwecky helped tremendously in bringing these important stories to life.
Gabriel Chehebar, a”h (1917-1998), was another descendent of the Shrem’s. His love for charity was evident and continues daily through the endless philanthropy of his children and grandchildren. Jojo, his son, follows his father’s lead as one of the founders of the very building housing these antiques. Gabriel A. Shrem, a”h (1916-1986), another descendant, was also a beloved hazan and cantor. Linking old world and new, he poured his heart and soul into the prayers and brought the beauty of Syrian songs back to life with his masterpiece, The Red Pizmonim Book.
Finally, I’ll share the story of Elias Greenberg, (yes there are many Sephardim with Ashkenazic names), who lived in Bensonhurst in the 1920’s and became engaged through kiddushin to Shefika (Sophie) Lulu Cohen, a girl he’d never seen, who lived in Aleppo. After a few months the two finally met and married in Paris, coming back to Brooklyn to start their family. What I find interesting about this story is what it says about the community in New York in 1929. Young Syrian men knew how important it was to marry within the community, even while there were barely any girls of their own in the States to choose from. Many young men chose brides through word of mouth or photographs from all over the world. This proves without a doubt that continuing the legacy was at the forefront of every community member’s mind, even as they lived the American dream.
The Children Are Our Future
I believe the history book that the museum has painstakingly researched and published, The History of the Jewish Community of Aleppo Through the Mid Nineteenth Century is one of the key ingredients to the success of this cause. The photographs are provided by the vast private collection of the museum, and the text is based on actual artifacts, writings, ledgers, and manuscripts available only to our historians. This book has been distributed to all of our yeshivot to ensure that our children learn not only about Jewish history at large, but our own particular chronicle as Syrian Jews, rich with customs and history that are uniquely ours.
I have seen all the movies presented by the Heritage Museum, and my husband and I always insist that our children join us to watch. It is just that important. When Joe Sitt introduces the films, he reminds us that as a community we are quite impressive, remaining steady and united for thousands of years. He credits our traditions, our “suffe,” and our dedication to charity, religion, family, hard work, and honesty with this achievement. One may even say that the “hesed” we show is inborn. It’s clear that throughout the generations forces that we cannot name have been pushing us; inherited instincts of inclusiveness and hospitality, optimism and sensitivity, traditional beliefs, and progressive convictions. The result is a positive outlook on life, a conception of social needs, and a loving means of serving Hashem. The evidence is in the hundreds of organizations, schools, and shuls we have established. It’s in the way we help each other in business without a second thought, and the way we cling to each other like birds of a feather. We have each other’s backs, and according to every piece of the puzzle, we have for the last 3,000 years.
The Museum would like to thank Jojo Chehebar one of the founders of the Beit Yosef Synagogue; Rabbi Raymond Sultan, director; Rabbi David Azar, historian; David Benoliel, graphic design; Margie Sarway, display; Eyal Mizrahi, City Signs; and Moshe Oiknine, photography; as well as the many workers and volunteers who painstakingly examine documents and artifacts to keep our history alive for generations to come.
Please come visit the Sephardic Heritage Museum located in the Beit Yosef Synagogue located at 108 Norwood Avenue in Deal, New Jersey.