It was not a typical Los Angeles synagogue banquet. Perfumed blonde women spoke French — melodic, very pretty French akin to how Brazilians speak Portuguese. Near the long dessert table, businessmen greeted each other with bear hugs, chomped cigars and bent their shoulders in hushed chitchat, their French words an integral fabric of this North Hollywood shul.
The Chanel scents, the kisses on each cheek, the shul’s North African architecture and gold-draped chairs and the decidedly French fact that the banquet was an hour behind schedule made the fundraising night one thing: Moroccan.
“We love our tradition! We love our food!” said businessman Bob Ore, one of several-hundred people at the Nov. 16 inauguration banquet of the Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation’s new community center, the latest expansion in the all-brick synagogue that is home to Southern California’s familial Moroccan Jewish community.
Moroccan Jews are a small part of the Los Angeles Jewish patchwork, often lumped in with other Jewish communities in broad discussions of Sephardic culture. Unofficial estimates claim that 5,000 to 10,000 Moroccan Jews live in Southern California, many of them Moroccan-born Israelis now absorbed into Los Angeles’ larger Israeli immigrant populace.
But the 30-year-old Em Habanim also has created a small cluster of Moroccan Jews, perhaps about 200, living within walking distance of the Orthodox shul on Laurel Canyon Boulevard near Burbank Boulevard.
The banquet raised approximately $250,000 for Em Habanim, which has about 500 families. It opened in 1974 with eight people worshipping in a small house.
“We started with absolutely zero,” said Sidney Chriqui, a founding shul member and retired civil engineer. “There was no Moroccan synagogue as such in North America until we opened up.”
Along with Em Habanim, Moroccan Jewish immigrants and Moroccan-born Israelis worship at Baba Sale, an 18-year-old Orthodox shul with several hundred families in the Fairfax District. Like Em Habanim, old Moroccan customs and new American realities merge with second-generation Moroccans, most of whom will marry Ashkenazi Jews.
“We are doing our best to keep the heritage going,” said Raphael Gabay, Babe Sale board president. “For sure, with each generation, you lose a little bit.”
One touchstone event in Moroccan Jewish culture was the 1942 liberation of Morocco from the Nazis’ Vichy French allies. Retired real estate agent Simone Kleinert called it, “The day the airplanes came.”
The Allied liberation fueled Moroccan Jewish dreams of immigrating either to French-speaking Montreal or Los Angeles, where palm trees sway as they do in Morocco’s capital of Rabat. Moroccan Jewish leaders also have noticed an immigration trend: a few dozen French Jewish families of Moroccan descent immigrating to Los Angeles in the past few years, partly in response to continued anti-Semitism.
Two of the area’s most prominent Moroccan Jews are advertising executive and Olam magazine founder-editor David Suissa and Simone Kleinert’s daughter, Michelle, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy community affairs director. She read the governor’s congratulations letter at the banquet.
“I do identify with the Sephardic part of me,” said Michelle Kleinert, a former Jewish Journal marketing director. Her father’s family came from Europe, with her mother creating a Beverly Hills home merging French, Moroccan and Jewish customs.
“I knew I was Moroccan,” Michelle Kleinert said.
Suissa described the expanded Em Habanim shul as “soul estate.” Suissa embraced his fellow cigar-loving Moroccans at the banquet, saying, “I feel like family here.”
Though Em Habanim has expanded, its prayers maintain the Sephardic influences of ancient Moroccan shuls. But the Modern Orthodox congregation’s leadership is not so strict on less-important rules, keeping alive the best of the old world’s traditions, while reaching out to the next generation in the new world.
“We try to keep it Orthodox,” Chriqui said. “If they drive and they park away from the synagogue, that’s fine.”