Shared history of persecution unites Mizrahi, Sephardic Jews

A band of young, Jewish musicians filled the halls of Hillel at UCLA with traditional Sephardic music as more than 120 local Sephardic Jews gathered at the center on Nov. 24 to commemorate Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. Sponsored by the nonprofit Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the event was designed to raise greater community awareness about the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various Middle Eastern and North African countries since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

“We have a responsibility to tell the world about the stories of our Jews that had been living for many centuries throughout countries in the Middle East and overnight became refugees by the Arab and Islamic regimes in those countries,” Israel’s Consul General in L.A. David Siegel said, calling upon those gathered “to teach your children about the near 1 million Jews who were left homeless and had everything taken away from them.” 

According to Norman Stillman’s book “The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times” (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), between 1948 and the late 1970s, nearly 900,000 Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen either fled their homes penniless because of pogroms by Arab mobs or were forced into exile by Arab regimes in their native countries. More than 200,000 Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries resettled in Europe and North America, while more than 500,000 settled in Israel. According to local Iranian-Jewish leaders, nearly 80,000 Jews have fled Iran since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The gathering at Hillel at UCLA came in conjunction with the Israeli Knesset’s recent designation of Nov. 30 as a national day of commemoration for the expulsion and flight of Jews from Middle Eastern countries since 1948. 

JIMENA’s local leadership said the event resonated with community members who experienced the violent pogroms that occurred from the late 1940s through the 1960s.

“Many members of the audience were former refugees themselves, and [they] felt as though we honored them personally and gave a voice to their story,” said Natalie Farahan, JIMENA’s Los Angeles program director.

JIMENA was founded in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, by a group of Bay Area Jews from Arab countries with the goal of educating the public about the history and culture of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. The group now has official chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has held events in Chicago and New York in recent years, where Jewish Mizrahi former refugees tell their stories of escape and exile for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

JIMENA was also created to share the story of Israel’s role as an ethnically diverse Jewish homeland and safe haven for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Farahan said.

Perhaps the event’s most emotional speech came from former Libyan Jewish refugee Penina Meghnagi Solomon, who recalled for the audience the traumatic experience of fleeing rioting Muslim mobs outside her home in Tripoli during Israel’s Six-Day War.

“In June 1967, there were rumors of a war between Israel and the Arab nations, and we received news that there was pillaging of Jewish homes and businesses, and they were killing Jews in Libya,” Solomon said. “I saw crowds outside our home shouting ‘Slaughter the Jews, slaughter the Jews!’ as they rioted in the streets — it was truly a frightening experience.”

Solomon said she and her family were forced to leave Libya with just one suitcase, then, eventually, relocated to refugee camps in Italy with thousands of other Jewish refugees from North Africa.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Los Angeles-based Sephardic Educational Center, said the story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews fleeing Middle Eastern countries during the 20th century remains relevant because of the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide and Israel’s status in the stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

“It is easy to forget, but we must tell our story and remember what happened to the Jews of the Middle East who fled oppression, pogroms and were exiled from their homes,” Bouskila said. “We must tell the world that we as Jews are not some foreign entity implanted in the Middle East during the 19th century, but our ancestors have been living there for many millennia.”

With the growing trend in recent years of Arab scholars and leaders denying the existence of Jewish populations in their respective countries, in 2010 JIMENA launched a campaign to video record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. Refugees in the videos tell their personal histories as well as stories of human-rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, material losses and resettlement in new societies in the West. In 2011, JIMENA began translating personal accounts of Mizrahi refugees into Arabic and Persian, with the help of Middle Eastern dissidents, and launched an Arabic Facebook page last year, which has 10,000 followers.

JIMENA leaders said that in 2015 they are planning a variety of events, including a backgammon tournament, a local Sephardic music festival, a human-rights panel discussion about minority groups in the Middle East and a Mimouna celebration — a traditional Moroccan-Jewish event with music and food that begins at nightfall on the last day of Passover and continues the following day until sundown.

To read more about JIMENA’s event at Hillel at UCLA, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at

Studying Sephardic roots

Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

Film Fest celebrates Sephardim

For its 11th festival, the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival (LASJFF) needed an honoree for its gala, which takes place Nov. 11 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. At the same time, the Portuguese-American actress Daniela Ruah needed a community. Or at least as much of a community as a busy young actress on a hit TV show can find time to fit in. 

Which is probably why it was a kind of kismet that Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Education Center (SEC), was half-watching “The Craig Ferguson Show” one evening in January, just as “NCIS: Los Angeles” star Ruah was being asked about her just-concluded 2011 holidays back in her homeland.

Ferguson asked Ruah about her experience at Christmas, and the actress replied that for her the celebration would be Chanukah. 

“And he said, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish. … How do you pronounce it
in Portuguese?’ And she said, ‘Chanu-KAH,’ ” Bouskila recalled. “The minute I heard that Sephardic pronunciation, I started Googling her. That night I sent an e-mail to [festival co-director] Neil [Sheff] saying, ‘I think I’ve found our honoree.’ ”

As it happened, a board member of the SEC was a close friend of the wardrobe manager for “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Through that connection, the SEC reached out to Ruah, who met with Bouskila and Sheff. The actress was flattered at the invitation, but puzzled, professing to consider herself unworthy yet of any career recognition. 

“ ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ is sort of like the first big thing I’ve ever done here,” Ruah said. “I was so taken aback by this wonderful offer, so to speak, that I was, like, ‘Are you sure?’ They were so sweet. They said, ‘This is more that we’re proud you’re of Sephardic Jewish descent. We’re proud of where you are and where you’re going.’ ”

Confirmed Bouskila, “If Jews are very tribal, Sephardic Jews are even more tribal in pride over our own. She deserves it. It’s a big deal.” 

The daughter of a surgeon father and an otologist mother, Ruah was born in Boston but moved to Portugal at age 5. She attended university in London and has worked extensively in Portugal, including winning the Portuguese equivalent of “Dancing With the Stars.” In 2009, Ruah was living in New York and making the rounds for pilot season when CBS was casting for “NCIS: Los Angeles,” the spin-off of the franchise “NCIS.” Despite giving what she felt was a horrible audition, Ruah got a callback, nailed that second chance and won the part of special agent Kensi Blye, a character who was originally conceived as Asian. A week later, she had relocated to Los Angeles and — on the small screen, at least — she has been fighting, shooting and detecting ever since.  

With seven days between the move and shooting, Ruah decided to apply the lessons learned from Craig Wroe’s guidebook, “An Actor Prepares … to Live in New York City,” to her move to Los Angeles.

“Before you start searching for work, and before you start learning the business, the most important thing is to have a safe haven to come home to,” Ruah said. “You need to make yourself a home and a place where you feel safe and where you are yourself.”

The haven part is long taken care of, says Ruah, who shares hers with two dogs. Through the discovery of the Sephardic center and the upcoming festival award, Ruah now has also found a community that in some ways mimics her roots in Portugal — to which she returns twice yearly during the show’s hiatus, and again at Chanu-KAH.

Ruah by now has met on more than one occasion with Sheff and co-director Sarita Fields. When Ruah’s father was visiting, she took him to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Sheff’s house, and she has gone to holiday services at the center when her schedule permits.

“It was sort of like the community I was looking for sort of came to me, and they were so accepting,” Ruah said. “Someone once asked me how did being Sephardic influence and play a part in my life. I come from such a small community. Here, people are both Ashkenazi and Sephardic; you can’t distinguish between the two, because otherwise you’d have three people in each place, and that’s not a community. Everybody kind of gels together.”  

As the recipient of the 2012 festival’s Cinema Sepharad Award, Ruah takes her place quite comfortably within a festival lineup that is most decidedly tribal, yet also very wide- reaching. The five-night festival includes feature films, shorts and documentaries with thematic ties to Jewish communities in Iraq, India, Morocco, Sudan, Rhodes and Cuba. The international flavor even gets localized on the LASJFF’s closing day, with the 2 p.m. short documentary “Once Upon a Time at 55th and Hoover,” which chronicles the community of Rhodesli Sephardic Jews who congregated in the community of South Los Angeles.    

The Nov. 13 screening of “The Visionary: The Life of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel,” which focuses on the life of the Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, will be followed by a Q-and-A with Israeli Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a man Bouskila says could be the modern-day reincarnation of Rabbi Uziel. With the Israeli film “Persian Lullaby” (Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall), LASJFF screens its first-ever film that is partially in Farsi. 

Sheff, who combs through hundreds of submissions looking for films that both contain Sephardic ties and are appropriate for a PG- or PG-13-minded audience, has seen the festival grow and blossom. Of the approximately 70 Jewish film festivals in North America, LASJFF’s is one of the few focused on Sephardic content. 

“The idea is to show the Sephardic experience on screen with a dual purpose,” Sheff said. “Those who aren’t too familiar with that experience can learn from the film something about what the experience of other Jews was like. And also people like to see at least a portion of their own family experience on screen.”

An outgrowth of SEC programs, the film festival began in 1997 as an alternative to annual fundraisers and a new way of enticing younger Jews to connect to their heritage. In addition to trips to Israel and opportunities to study abroad, the SEC developed the film festival as a way for Sephardic Jews of all nationalities to see themselves represented on screen. And to represent themselves: LASJFF has a student film competition that encourages filmmakers to continue the storytelling tradition.  

“The basic idea is that the opening night would be a fundraiser in place of a boring typical dinner at the Beverly Hilton,” Bouskila said. “The rest of the week would be a film festival in a public movie theater. In addition to raising money, the festival is like a cultural contribution to the community of Los Angeles — Jewish and non Jewish. It serves as a big event that the SEC does for the community.”

For more information about the festival, visit

Sunday in the Park

Maybe the post-apocalyptic parking situation was a tip-off. The overcapacity of automobiles surrounding Woodley Park seemed to confirm that this year’s Israeli Independence Day Festival outdid itself in terms of spectacle and attendance. An estimated 50,000 attended, festival director Yoram Gutman confirmed, making this year’s festival the biggest yet. As Gutman told The Journal, "There are so many Israelis who live in the Valley, so maybe that has something to do with it. I never saw so many Persian Jews and American Jews."

At the vast Encino park, the aroma of barbecues tended to by picnicking families filled the spring air; kids rode rides and tossed footballs; Jewish organizations reached out to passers-by; long lines mobbed food kiosks that offered everything from smoothies to Persian cuisine; and Israeli folk dancers cut up the lawn, if not the rug.

The Journal also got to meet and greet readers and award prizes to our raffle contestants, including the children interpreting their odes to the 53rd Israeli Independence Day in crayon for our art contest.

The festival seemed to have a little something for everyone: Sephardim and Ashkenazim; Israeli, American, Persian and Russian Jews; and non-Jews. Overall, a nice (extended) family affair.

As for Israeli Fest No. 54, Gutman was undecided whether the annual event will return to its original Pan Pacific Park setting.

"It was so successful in the Valley that it may stay in the Valley," Gutman said.