Sunday, August 8, 2010

Day 6: Saying Farewell to the SEC in Jerusalem

With the end of the SEC’s Summer Institute program this week, I leave the magical Old City of Jerusalem and Israel with fond memories. The seminar this past week was full of insightful halachah according to Sephardic scholars, a look at the Sephardic traditional Judaism and the influence of Sephardic Jewry on Israeli society today.

Perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of this visit to the SEC for me was seeing the organization’s founder, Dr. Jose Nessim, witness the flourishing of this non-profit he set up 30 years ago. While there was no official passing of any “Sephardic torch” from Dr. Nessim to the other executive board members of the SEC, I could see the tremendous pride in his eyes everyday as he attended the seminar’s activities. In addition I also found the visit by Israeli Member of Knesset, Rabbi Haim Amsellem another very interesting twist to the week-long program. This is because Amsellem discussed his recent proposals to offer a moderate traditional religious Sephardic approach to the troubling question of Jewish conversion for approval as law in the Knesset. I was additionally surprised to learn from reporter Yossi Klein Halevi that an Iranian Jew, like Meir Banai, had had such an influence on contemporary Israeli rock music! Lastly it was refreshing to discover that there is a Sephardic organization in the world like the SEC which is seeking to both keep alive the beauty of its traditions and also maintain a traditional but non-fanatic approach to Judaism today.

About 14 years ago I arrived at the SEC as a soon-to-be college student and embarked on a trip of Israel which was life transforming for me. Israel is and will always be a very special place on earth for me. This partly because of the warm welcome I have always received at the SEC. So spending this special week at the SEC in Jerusalem brought back those old memories and solidified the fact that the SEC is indeed my home away from home in Israel! The organization and its members are incredible individuals who make me proud to be a Sephardic Jew in the 21st century.

In closing, I tip by hat to the SEC’s leadership and to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who organized is remarkable seminar in Jerusalem. Thank you rabbi for allowing me to witness this historic transformation of the SEC and to blog about it. My blessings and love to the SEC’s executive board…you are on your way my friends to a very bright future ahead!

Here are some closing remarking from SEC executive board member Neil Sheff about this week’s seminar…

SEC member Moussa Shaaya also sends his closing well wishes to Dr. Nessim here…

-- Karmel Melamed

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shabbat at the SEC was spiritually uplifiting...

For those of us that have experienced the start of Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem praying at the Western Wall, there is only one word to describe it…magical! Since the SEC is situated only five minutes from the Western Wall, our group enjoyed a very spiritual and uplifting Shabbat praying in the evening at the Kotel. We later enjoyed a fun filled a relaxing Shabbat dinner in the SEC’s courtyard area.

Shabbat morning was filled with continued prayer at the SEC’s chapel with their donated Torahs and followed with lunch. Later in the afternoon the rabbis had a lively discussion about Jewish religious laws in a Q&A secession. Finally Shabbat was brought to a close in an uplifting Havdalah. Ultimately Shabbat at the SEC in Jerusalem turned out to a remarkably relaxing, spiritual and thought provoking time as our summer seminar was completed.

-- Karmel Melamed

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 5: Looking into the future with new SEC manifesto...

This morning the SEC’s Rabbi Bouskila presented the executive board of the organization with the SEC’s new proposed “manifesto” of moving the group forward in the 21st century. The plan outlines efforts to have the SEC provide traditional Sephardic religious education, potential on going training courses for rabbis as well as an array of youth programs. In my opinion, perhaps one of the most important components of the plan was its overriding goal to provide a moderate yet traditional approach to Sephardic Judaism. From our brief education on the long history of Sephardic religious sages and legal ruling during this week, it seems as if they have maintained a voice of moderation. Therefore I think it’s only natural for Rabbi Bouskila and the SEC to continue with this long standing tradition of maintaining a moderate Sephardic approach through out all their programs and efforts.

The feedback from the SEC’s executive board was indeed positive but various additions and recommendations being offered to the plan. Some individuals also tossed around the idea of possibly changing the organization’s name in an effort to attract new faces to the SEC. Whether any name changes will be made, time will only tell. However it seems as if the SEC is on its way to pursing new and exciting endeavors in the next five to ten years.

-- Karmel Melamed

Day 4: Detour to the ruins of Beit She'an

(Beit She'an Mayor Jackie Levy)

As our time in Safed was coming to an end, at dinner we were joined by Jackie Levy, the mayor of the Israeli city of "Beit She'an" which is also located in northern Israel near the border with Jordan. Levy, who is son of the former Israeli Foreign Minster David Levy, invited us to see a light show at the ruins of the ancient city of Beit She'an. We took him up on his offer and journeyed to Beit She'an that evening only to be mesmerized by the creative light show that had been incorporated in the excavated ruins of Beit She'an.

According to our tour guide, Beit She'an was once a thriving Roman city completed with trading, bath houses, theatres and other attractions for visitors traveling through the area. Unfortunately several centuries later the city was destroyed in a massive earthquake that leveled the city completely. During the last 20 years the residents of Beit She'an, with some government funding excavated the ruins and uncovered a remarkable city.

The following is a brief video from the light show at the ruins...

Here are some other snapshots of the ruins I captured that evening...

(SEC's executive board member Ray Malell)

Day 4: On the road to Safed - Elvis, Kabalah and the Shulchan Aruch

The journey from the SEC’s base in Jerusalem to the mystical Sephardic city of Safed (a.k.a. Tzfat) in northern Israel was a three hour drive and full of interesting surprises along the way. On the way to Safed, our group briefly stopped by a rest stop which interestingly enough was dedicated to the late “King” of rock n’ roll Elvis Presley. While we enjoyed our own boxed lunches, I could help but noticed the face of Elvis plastered everywhere in the nearby diner, a souvenir store and complete with a gigantic bronze statute of man who had a likeness to Elvis but had Asian eyes and a Jewish “Chai” necklace around his neck! It's interested how Israelis sometimes take on American entertainment icons and put their own twists to them. Here are just a few photos from the rest stop…

Upon our arrival in Safed, our tour guide took us to a series of ancient and well known synagogues including the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, the Abuhav Synagogue and the Yosef Caro Synagogue. Each synagogue was unique in itself with elaborate designs but the Caro Synagogue which was very simple had plenty of significance for our group. This because in the 16th century, Caro is best known for composing the “Shulchan Aruch” (Hebrew translation for ‘set table’) which is a codification of Jewish law. Together with its commentaries, it is frequently considered the most authoritative compilation of Jewish law. We learned that Caro was a mystic of his time and believed strongly in Kabalah, Jewish mysticism.

In addition to the various synagogues in Safed, we were also enticed to shop at the countless art stores in the city. Here are just a few of the snapshots I captured from the city…

(Inside the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue)

(Inside the Abubav Synagogue)

(Yosef Caro synagogue in Safed).

(Cave where it's believe Yosef Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch)

(Rabbi Bouskila explaining how the Shulchan Aruch was prepared by Yosef Caro).

-- Karmel Melamed