Sephardic shul celebrates 20 years of divine duty

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Much like its namesake, the Bayit truly is a home to many. And that includes one of Riverdale’s Sephardic religious families, Congregation Beth Aharon, who has called The Hebrew Institute home since 1998.

In fact, Beth Aharon members recently celebrated 20 years at the Henry Hudson Parkway synagogue with a cultural flair most would have to fly to the Middle East to witness.

“Our community is a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities,” said Dan Sebbah one of the congregation’s leaders. “We have a big community from Israel, and you have people who converted to Judaism and several people who have come among us and were welcomed within our community.”

Rav Selim Dweck started Beth Aharon back in a time when there were no Sephardic synagogues in Riverdale, only Ashkenazi ones.

Ashkenazi Jews are of European descent while Sephardic Jews typically find origins in Spain, northern Africa or the Middle East.

But for Beth Aharon, the diversity doesn’t stop there. The congregation boasts members from France, England, Argentina, Italy, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews may not share the same ethnicities, but their basic beliefs are identical — even though their culture and practices may sometimes differ.

When Beth Aharon was budding and looking for a space to worship, the Bayit generously opened its doors to the congregation.

Over the next 20 years the congregation has expanded and come into its own. At the recent anniversary celebration, members used the time not only to celebrate how far Beth Aharon had come, but the synagogue’s culture as well.

To add zest to the event, Beth Aharon injected hints of its Middle Eastern roots, including traditional garments while a henna artist was invited to cover members with richly detailed hand art.

Avi Perets provided live music, while those in attendance feasted on authentic Middle Eastern food.

“There is no law that tells us to do that,” said Elitsur Gadasi, a congregation leader about the celebration. “It was to add some fun, and it did indeed add some flavor.”

Beth Aharon makes a continuous effort to interact with the larger Riverdale community, whether that be through its newsletter or events. The congregation has luncheons at least once a year.

“Every month there is some kind of event,” Gadasi said. “And we try to have one key event once a month just for the reason of coming together and having community.”

Although Beth Aharon meets at the Bayit, they are separate from that synagogue, maintaining autonomy in shared space. In many ways, the Bayit reflects the character and soul of Israel, Sebbah said, which includes incredible diversity.

“We come together in unity,” Sebbah said. “We are an open community of people and cultures, and this is why a lot of people like to come.”

While Dweck died in 1998, his memory lives on. The rabbi’s family was honored along with Aharon and Ziva Shalomoff, Ray Dov and Nancy Lerea, Maurice and Tzipora Elmalem, Sebbah and his wife Myriam, Kobi and Yehudit Zalicha, and Toby and Avi Weiss.

Whether rejoicing or meeting in fellowship, Beth Aharon’s goal is to reach others and to be there for their community.

Weekly prayer services take place Sunday morning at 8:30, Mondays and Thursdays at 6:40 and 8 a.m., and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 6:45 and 8 a.m. Their Minha and Arvit services take place Sunday though Thursday at 4:20 p.m.

“We offer services every Shabbat in the Sephardi version of Jewish prayer which is open to all whoever wants to come and join,” Gadasi said. “By the way, you don’t have to be from Sephardic descent ethnically speaking. You can be of any country or ethnicity.

“As long as you want to pray from the Sephardi (version), people are welcomed to come.”

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