At Keter Torah Synagogue’s annual Chanukah party, Rabbi Sasson Natan welcomed guests, and led prayers…
Preserving Culture – Keter Torah
Keter Torah marks 100 years of the Sephardic community in Detroit.
The distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Judaism is evident the moment one walks into the building that houses the Keter Torah congregation at the corner of Orchard Lake and Walnut Lake roads.
The mezuzah is hung vertically, just as they were on the doorposts of Jewish homes in Jerusalem at the time of the First Temple. In the entryway, the congregation proudly displays ornate Torah encasements, centuries old from Sephardic communities around the world that in their time held the scrolls vertically as they are read in Sephardic style.
On Shabbat mornings, the unique sounds of Sephardic melodies and Torah trope meld with the aromas and tastes of a Kiddush lunch lovingly prepared by some of the 100 congregant families representing more than 20 countries.
On June 21, Keter Torah celebrated a century of proudly preserving Sephardic culture for future generations in Detroit with nearly 200 guests and speeches delivered by descendants of its founding families.
They included third-generation member and third-generation synagogue President Ricky Behar, whose grandparents Jacob and Judith Chicorel founded Keter Torah in 1917, after arriving in Detroit from Turkey.
Chicorel was a spiritual leader and hazzan who trained with Turkish Rabbi Izak Algazi (1899-1950). In 1917, the Chicorels began hosting High Holiday services and soon after the organization became known as the Sephardic Community of Greater Detroit.
According to Behar, three generations of the Chicorel/Behar family have served on the board contiguously, and 60 out of those 100 years a Behar has served as congregation president.
Behar has vivid memories growing up among the synagogue’s congregants in religious and social settings. There were Chanukah and Purim parties, summer picnics and religious services in the 18 different locations the congregation would rent out before breaking ground and opening its West Bloomfield building in 2002.
Though he has no memory of his grandfather, who died when Ricky was 2 in 1963, he recalls the story of how Chicorel was promised “on his deathbed” by congregants and hazzanut Yeshua Katan and David Hazan that they would continue the traditions of preserving the distinct sounds and melodies of the Sephardic customs at services.
“These lay leaders could have let our traditions and melodies slip away, but they kept it up for 35 years,” Behar says. That led up to the 1990s, when an Israeli engineering contractor with General Motors named Sasson Natan started showing up for minyan held in the Oak Park Jewish Community Center.
It was Behar’s mother, Shirley Behar, the only woman president in the synagogue’s history (1990-1994), who first recognized Natan’s gift in the Sephardic liturgy and an authentic Torah chanting learned from generations of his family hazzanut stemming back to Jerusalem and Baghdad.
For decades, the community held together through lifecycle events, High Holiday services and then weekly Sunday minyanim at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Oak Park. Services were led by a blend of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Much of the building of this minyan and the weekly Shabbat minyan was due to Shirley, Behar says.
“My mom was a one-woman marketing force for Sephardic ritual life,” recalls Behar. “She invested all that energy because she wanted those distinct sounds and melodies to be heard in Detroit.”
Making Of A Rabbi
It was Shirley who inspired Natan to become a rabbi, though his path to becoming a rabbi has been a meandering one.
Perhaps the beginning of his path traces back to the first time he was asked to lead prayers in Jerusalem, shortly after he became a bar mitzvah, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
“It was time for Minchah (afternoon services) and the synagogue was nearly empty because so many had been called up, including my father, who was at the Suez Canal as a medic,” Natan says. “It was a horrible day. The silence of Yom Kippur was broken by sirens and chaos. But that afternoon, I was asked to lead the synagogue in prayer.”
After spending several years here, Natan and his family left Detroit in 1998 for Chicago to head a Sephardic day school from 1998 to 2000, returning to the area annually to lead High Holiday services. In 2004, the Natans moved to Tiberias, Israel, where he studied with a Moroccan community for his rabbinic ordination and, in 2007, moved to Houston to help revive the Sephardic community there.
In 2013, the Natans were visiting Detroit during Passover when they were told the Sephardic community here was struggling and that leaders feared they would have to close the building. With sheer determination to rebuild the community — and another discussion with his wife about making one more move — the Natans were back in Metro Detroit by the High Holidays in 2013.
“I told my (Sephardic) friends here, ‘You are not closing Keter Torah,’” Natan says. “The Sephardim in the area need a home to practice our distinct traditions and hear and sing our distinct melodies. Now, it is a struggle, as any 21st-century synagogue struggles, but we are bringing in members. There are young families, and on Shabbat morning you can find baby carriages in the entryway and children learning to lead services on the bimah. We are working hard to revive the place and making sure there is a next generation to keep the traditions going.”
Natan says his training as both a rabbi and an engineer makes him better equipped to navigate and advise on the realities of the daily lives of his congregants.
“Since I have been ordained, I use all my skills as a rabbi, an engineer and a musician to reach out and relate to my congregants,” Natan says. “They have all come in handy. Because I worked in the secular world, I can better relate to my congregants who work for a living and face real-world challenges in work and family life.”
Behar says, in 2013, Natan realized he had an opportunity to bring his work full circle to make the return to Keter Torah.
“We inspired him to become a rabbi and, in turn, he inspires us to want and work for Keter Torah to remain strong, vibrant and secure,” Behar says.
Today, in addition to Natan, services are led by a variety of congregants as well as about four Torah readers, students at nearby Yeshiva Mesivta, who have mastered several Sephardic trope styles.
In addition to the eclectic mix of melodies, Natan pointed out there are different Sephardic traditions that a Jewish child from their community may not pick up on at a predominantly Ashkenazi day or congregational religious school. There are no stripes on their all-white talitot. Tefillin are wrapped in a different manner, and there are unique passages in prayers like the Kedushah and the Kaddish.
Over the decades, with each new influx of immigrants from places like Turkey, Morocco or Tunisia, one community may have had a greater representation and influence than others — right now there is a strong Azerbaijani Jewish representation — but this has not been a cause for conflict in carrying out services and traditions, Natan says.
A Permanent Home
All Sephardic synagogues follow the Orthodox tradition, though Behar says not all members are Orthodox. Rather than affiliating with a level of observance, as Ashkenazi Jews do in the United States, Sephardic Jews gravitate to joining to maintain their unique ethnic culture, Behar says. There is a mechitzah and a women’s balcony and, in Sephardic tradition, the bimah is in the center of the sanctuary.
Logistically, because there has never been one neighborhood with large pockets of Sephardim, picking a permanent site for a building has been a point of contention since the 1930s, Behar says. For decades, there was a debate whether that site should be either in West Bloomfield — where younger families were moving — or remain in Oak Park with the founding generation.
Not until the 1990s did the congregation form a consensus on moving building plans forward in West Bloomfield, Behar says.
“I was on the board and I was in my early 30s at the time with many other aging board members when we had this meeting in 1996,” Behar recalls. “I stood up and I asked (those in favor of the Oak Park site), ‘Which of your children or grandchildren will remain with the Sephardic community’ and pointed out that the Jewish population in general was shifting northwest of the city.
“And, for the first time in 60 years of debating, there was a unanimous decision to agree on a building location.”
Fundraising began in 2000 shortly thereafter, with Behar as the chair. At an opening fundraiser, $450,000 was raised in a single evening. The building was opened in 2002 and remains the core of Sephardic culture in Detroit. In addition to services, Keter Torah welcomes the wider community for programs about different Jewish communities within the Sephardic world.
Behar admits that when you are a minority in a religious minority, it is tough not to assimilate. Behar’s mother was the youngest of seven children and was the only sibling that did not marry an Ashkenazi Jew. However, almost 70 descendants of his mother’s family attended the celebration — one coming from as far away as Taipei, Taiwan — and all have stayed close to their Sephardic roots through their customs and cuisine.
“The fact that they still cling to Sephardic roots is a testament to their ancestry,” Behar says. “They all have the memories of our community and growing up in the Sephardic social circles — from the long summer picnics and card games to celebrating lifecycle simchahs together and hearing all the languages from Arabic to Ladino to Turkish. And now we have a building to house all of that tradition, and that is how it will stay.”
For Kim Benezra, a second-generation American born to a Moroccan mother and an American father, it is those Sephardic melodies of Shabbat and the High Holiday services as well as the eclectic cuisine that keeps her connected and involved to Keter Torah as sisterhood president. Her family has been members since the 1960s.
“My father was not Sephardic, but he wanted us to maintain that culture,” Benezra says. “Within the congregation, we found a home within the company of other Sephardic Jews. To maintain that culture and be in a community where you can get exposed to all the languages from where we are from — from Arabic to French to Spanish and sometimes many languages in one sentence — has been an invaluable experience for my children.”
Benezra’s children, Shlomo, 19, Becky, 18, and Yoni, 16, studied at Chabad for their religious education, and she remembers attending Hebrew school at Adat Shalom Synagogue and Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Still, she and her family maintain close ties to the Sephardic circle within the wider Ashkenazi Jewish circle.
Though her kids are older, they have found a tight social circle at Keter Torah and enjoy going to Shabbat services, where children and teens are encouraged to participate and lead.
“Ultimately, what keeps us connected to Keter Torah is the unique and eclectic mix of all those nationalities,” Benezra says. “We have a custom of singing to congregants each week on the week of their birthday. Where else in Detroit can my children come to services and be asked, ‘Do you want to sing in Farsi, Ladino, Arabic or Hebrew?’ We are a small congregation, but when you are Sephardic, this place is home.”