Keter Torah/Beth Shalom event to mark 100 years of Detroit’s Sephardic community

    “A Taste of Jewish Lebanon” on March 26 will be part of the celebration of 100 years of Detroit’s Sephardic community. The event is a cooperative venture of Keter Torah Synagogue of West Bloomfield and Congregation Beth Shalom of Oak Park, as part of its Cantor Sam and Mona Greenbaum Musical Event series.

    Rabbi Sasson Natan sings with a traditional band after candle-lighting during the program at Keter Torah Synagogue

    Nora Natan, wife of Rabbi Sasson Natan of Keter Torah, will speak about the life and languages of the Jews of Lebanon, which is also the history of her family.

    Rabbi Natan is scheduled to perform music from the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish diaspora, accompanied by a four-piece band of local Arabic musicians. The musical performance will be accompanied by a PowerPoint tour of the Jews of the Middle East, each community with its own musical and cultural traditions. Natan will also talk about how Middle Eastern music relates to Western musical traditions.

    The buffet dinner, prepared by Jewel Kosher Catering, will feature the cuisine of the Lebanese Jews.

    Natan notes the event will “not just be reading from a book, but experiencing the feeling of a culture.”

    Local Beginnings

    Jacob and Judith Chicorel organized services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Detroit in 1917 for the Sephardic immigrants here, people who would feel out of place in an Ashkenazi synagogue. Attendees came from around the Sephardic world, including Turkey, Spain, Italy and Greece. And they spoke a variety of native languages: Ladino (mostly spoken by Greek and Turkish Jews whose ancestors came from Spain or Portugal), Italian, Arabic and French (spoken by many Moroccan and Egyptian Jews).

    Membership grew gradually, with the congregation renting spaces for High Holiday services and special events.   

    In the mid-1980s, a small group of men — Yeshua Katan, Joseph David, Gilbert Senor, Mario Sevy, Sam Pinchas, Gabriel Salama, Sam Papo and David Hazan, with the leadership of Rabbi Avraham Cohen and President David Chicorel — began the organization’s first weekly minyan Sunday services at Yeshivah Beth Yehuda in Oak Park.

    In the early 1990s, President Shirley Behar initiated Shabbat services held initially at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park. She recruited Sasson Natan to help in leading services. He became hazzan first and later the shul’s rabbi.

    Keter Torah Synagogue in West Bloomfield was dedicated in 2002 as the Jacob and Judith Chicorel Building. Rabbi Michael Cohen served as head rabbi until 2007. 

    Current Keter Torah President Rick Behar is a direct descendant of the founding couple. His mother was a Chicorel.

    Albert Ben-Ezra of Egypt lights a candle for his country at a commemoration service in 2015 as other candle-lighters Myrna Doppelt, Nora Natan, Hadassa Kidron and Mary David watch

    Throughout the years, the Sephardic community was renowned for its wonderful social gatherings, annual Mediterranean Night Dinners and holiday parties. The homemade Sephardic delicacies were legendary. However, at the root of it all, was the continuation of the Orthodox Sephardic traditions of religiousness and spirituality.

    Rabbi Natan, whose family is Iraqi, came to Detroit from Israel in 1990 to work as an electrical engineer for General Motors. The first synagogue he found here, Young Israel of Southfield, follows Ashkenazi traditions, which felt so unfamiliar that he was going to return to Israel for the holidays the following year. However, he met Eli Rashty, an Iraqi Jew who invited him to Keter Torah. On that first visit, the congregation invited Natan to read Torah.

    Music And Beth Shalom

    For years, Congregation Beth Shalom had major musical events on an irregular basis, every other year or so. Ten years ago, the congregation began an annual concert in honor of Cantor Sam and Mona Greenbaum.

    Over the years, the Greenbaum program has brought notable artists to the shul. The first year, the late Debbie Friedman performed in concert. In subsequent years, artists included Neshama Carlebach, Joshua Nelson, Sam Glazer, Yiddishe Cup (a Cleveland klezmer band) and Aaron Lewis and the Hot Seats.

    In planning for this year’s concert, Behar of Keter Torah proposed combining the Greenbaum musical event with a Keter Torah program featuring music of different traditions in the Sephardic and Mizrahi world as well as food of the Lebanese Jews.

    Cantor Sam Greenbaum says he appreciates cooperation between the two synagogues and that he anticipates attracting a wide audience with the program.

    Other sponsoring organizations include the Jewish News, ZOA and StandWithUs Michigan.

    Louis Finkelman Contributing Editor

    For details about the 5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, event at Beth Shalom, visit jrefugees1948@gmail.com or call (248) 547-7970. Cost is $18.
    RSVP by March 22.

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