Rabbi Sasson Natan
Rabbi Sasson Natan

The most important gift Rabbi Sasson Natan has instilled into the community is something, in Daniel Shamayev’s opinion, no other shul in Metropolitan Detroit can share.

How does a community say goodbye to a rabbi who singlehandedly saved them from closing their synagogue’s doors?

Rabbi Sasson Natan, whose Iraqi roots encouraged us to call him by his first name, came to Detroit in 1991 as an Israeli engineering contractor with General Motors. Rabbi Sasson became the first chazan of our congregation, at the time when it was a small Sephardic minyan based in Oak Park.

When Rabbi Sasson left the community for his ordination as a rabbi eight years later, the community moved on, breaking ground and moving into the current Keter Torah synagogue at Walnut Lake and Orchard Lake roads in West Bloomfield. 

He went on to head a Sephardic day school in Chicago, be a spiritual leader in the Moroccan community in Tiberias, Israel, and rebuild a Sephardic community in Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, the Sephardic community in West Bloomfield saw both highs and lows.

Daniel Shamayev
Daniel Shamayev

During a visit to Detroit in 2013, Rabbi Sasson learned of the dire need for a spiritual leader in a community that once was his. It was straightforward. Keter Torah had been without a rabbi for five years, and if it couldn’t find one it would be forced to shut down operations. It was obvious to him, he had to be back in Detroit. He was by the High Holidays in 2013.

In 2015, I was only 14 when I first heard of Rabbi Sasson or stepped foot into Keter Torah. Did I gain a connection with the shul because of the excitement of a community finally regaining a rabbi after so long? 

Or was it because the new Rabanit Nora Natan was my and my three siblings’ Hebrew teacher at Akiva Hebrew Day School? 

Or was it because the whole environment of Sephardic Jewry in Metro Detroit improved with congregants returning to the shul?

My whole family only knew of Rabbi Sasson as their rabbi. He was the teacher for each of my brothers’ bar mitzvah, stood under the chuppah at my sister’s wedding and visited me in Jerusalem where I was studying in yeshivah for two years.

All we’ve seen is growth within our tightknit community. When we began to come to Keter Torah every Shabbat beginning in 2015, the congregation was much smaller, disengaged and, I felt, not “kid-friendly.” Six years later, even though the impact from COVID, there is a consensus throughout the shul that this is the strongest the congregation has ever been. 

Since Rabbi Sasson came back to Detroit, Keter Torah has had more programming than ever, hosting weekly classes, daily morning prayers, shesh-besh (backgammon) nights, barbeques, NCSY youth events and holiday parties. Our congregation’s best interests even were represented in the World Zionist Congress in Israel.

Today, while we enjoy the services led by Rabbi Sasson, he has trained an arsenal of teenagers and young adults to both read the Torah and lead services in the specific Sephardic tradition, mastering the different/difficult Sephardic tropes. 

But the most important gift Rabbi Sasson has instilled into the community is something, in my opinion, no other shul in Metropolitan Detroit can share.

Looking back at Rabbi Sasson’s final Yom Kippur serving Keter Torah as rabbi, I couldn’t believe what I witnessed. For the past three years, I have spent the High Holidays in Israel, enjoying the Sephardic melodies abroad, but I forgot the experience of having an exceptional rabbi like him. 

Explain to me — what other rabbi can organize, give sermons, lead and be the chazan for the 12-hour service on Yom Kippur? I can complain while sitting in my seat in the corner, with my bookstand and comfortable chair, but how does a human being do all of that and then cap it off with 30 blasts from a shofar? I only understood when I called him the next day — he had trouble even releasing a sentence from his voice.  

His pain was the perfect send-off. I knew from that short, 15-seconds long WhatsApp call that I and my community would never find a rabbi quite like him. Someone who can salvage a broken community while keeping the unique traditions at heart. A rabbi who can speak, sing, read the Torah, lead services, handle logistics and even connect with the most disconnected members of the community.

All I’ve known is an environment where my family and I can feel at home. A place where anyone is welcome. Thank you, Rabbi Sasson Natan for providing that for us. It is a tough goodbye as he is moving back to Israel, but as we always say, we all hope will see you later in Jerusalem for the next High Holidays. 

Daniel Shamayev, 20, of Keego Harbor, is a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York. He also is the founder of the Detroit Shul Basketball League.

Previous articleTeens Can Apply Now for a Bronfman Fellowship
Next articleJARC Event Takes to the Fast Lane