A Sephardic Jew of Egyptian and Turkish ancestry, Avi Avishai was raised in a pretty secular household, but with a strong sense of cultural Sephardic identity.
Trying to reclaim the religion lost to his family after a generation was murdered by Nazis, Avishai has returned to the Orthodoxy of his grandparents, and has been attending services at Shaare Torah Congregation for about three years.
While he has been happy and comfortable worshipping there, this past Shabbat was particularly gratifying, he said, as he was able to re-connect with his Sephardic roots by being part of Shaare Torah’s first Sephardic Shabbat minyan.
“The minyan went very well,” he told the Chronicle. “We had about 20 men and a handful of women and children, around 30 people total. Even the people who were originally skeptical were excited about next month’s minyan.”
The new Sephardic minyan, which — at least initially — will be held once a month on Shabbat Mevorchim (the Shabbat that proceeds Rosh Chodesh) or Shabbat Rosh Chodesh (if Shabbat happens to fall on Rosh Chodesh), has been established to fulfill a need in the community, according to Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah.
“There is a Sephardic presence in the community, and a number of members in our congregation are of Sephardic descent,” Wasserman said.
He knows of no other regular Sephardic minyan currently held in Pittsburgh.
While in the past, a group of Sephardic worshippers independently rented Shaare Torah’s chapel for High Holy Day services, Wasserman said this new Shabbat minyan will be under the auspices of Shaare Torah.
The term “Sephardic” originally referred to Jews whose ancestors lived in the Iberian Peninsula, but the term now commonly is used to describe Jews from countries along the Mediterranean Sea, such as Morocco, Egypt, Italy and Syria, as well as Iran and Iraq. There are nuanced differences among the practices of Jews that identity as Sephardic based upon their ancestry.
“There are slightly different flavors and variations,” Wasserman said. “We’re going to try to make one big happy family. Everyone’s going to come together and we’re going to try to figure it out.”
Shaare Torah currently holds two other minyans on Shabbat: one at 7:15 a.m., and one at 8:50 a.m. Wasserman goes from one to the other, he said, and will likewise participate in the new Sephardic minyan, which begins at 9:15 a.m. in the downstairs chapel. He will read Torah, in the Ashkenazi fashion, for the new minyan.
“It will be no different than any other minyan at our shul,” Wasserman said. “Members of the congregation will lead the service, directed and appointed by the synagogue on a service-by-service basis.”
While most of the Sephardic service is the same as the Ashkenazi service, there are some differences, including variations in pronunciation, different tunes, and less silent prayer, according to Avishai.
The next Sephardic Shabbat minyan will be held on Shabbat Mevorchim Kislev, Nov. 2.
The new monthly service could be the start of a more expansive initiative.
“I would love to see a regular Sephardic minyan every day, and if not every day, then every week,” Wasserman said. “My hope is that it will grow to its full potential. The sky’s the limit.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)