Together and equal

Degel Yehuda, an egalitarian minyan that is not affiliated with any of the main streams of Judaism, attracts Sephardim who want to sing traditional melodies in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Together and equal (photo credit: courtesy)
Together and equal
(photo credit: courtesy)
The dawn had begun to paint the sky delicate shades of pink as Slihot, the early morning prayers recited before the High Holy Days, resounded in the living room of the Montagus in Arnona. Ten men and women of various ages, sitting on the sofa and in comfortable chairs, recited the verses of repentance according to the old traditional tunes of the various Sephardi communities. The intimate service continued, shifting from Moroccan, Iraqi and Kurdish tunes, back to the North African tradition, ending with the familiar “Adon Haslihot” in a moderate rhythm, a departure from the somewhat celebrated upbeat rhythm the song has taken on over the years. It sounded the way a prayer of repentance should sound – moderate, slow, expressing one’s pain at confessing one’s sins, as if the message were to reconnect with old traditions, not just sing a pretty melody.
Degel Yehuda, a small, warm, intimate community, is an egalitarian Sephardi minyan – a description that many might consider to be an oxymoron. It operates within mainstream Judaism but isn’t part of any of the streams outside Orthodoxy, yet the small group runs, or re-creates – depending on whom you ask – the tolerant and relaxed atmosphere of the moderate Sephardi traditions that prevailed years ago in many Sephardi communities in Jerusalem and abroad.
While some of the members were at first or may still be members of the Masorti movement in Israel, at the Degel Yehuda services that issue is not part of the program. In fact, the prominent members insist that this is not even a synagogue but a way to renew ties with an old tradition that brings together family, home and religious customs, such as prayers and momentous life events.
In this context, the group has given up the location it used to rent for Shabbat and holiday prayers. They prefer to alternate among members’ houses and thus preserve the special atmosphere they believe exemplifies what they consider to be traditional Sephardi Jewish life.
“I am not really into synagogue issues,” says D., a member of Degel Yehuda who is a teacher and father of three. He says that this congregation is, in fact, the perfect answer for those who “just want to live in a simple traditional Sephardi community.” He is quick to add that the term “Sephardi” itself is already loaded, “since ‘Sephardi’ embraces a wide range of ethnicities – such as Kurdish, Iraqi, Moroccan, Tunisian. I would simply say that it reflects the need for an intimate, familial gathering in which to pray, surrounded by one’s immediate family – something that just doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
This tradition of families praying together within the larger context of a communal gathering (and not in a synagogue) has another advantage besides keeping old traditions alive and preserving a sense of intimacy. By avoiding the synagogue, questions of what is sanctioned or not, what is forbidden by Halacha or even just by a tradition that has gained halachic status are not a concern. An example of the wider possibilities this tradition has opened is the participation of women in the prayer service. In this context, it is interesting to note a ruling issued several years ago by the highest Sephardi halachic authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the haredi Shas party.
Yosef was asked about the authorization for a daughter to recite the mourner’s prayer, Kaddish, and he ruled that in such case, (the daughter) “will say Kaddish after studying Torah in her home.” Yosef refused to permit it in the synagogue (although he didn’t deny that Halacha does allow it) because in his eyes, a family home, unlike a synagogue, as a private place, seemed suitable to him.
This story points out exactly what the members of Degel Yehuda want to renew – the sense that a home, while still enabling serious and genuine prayer, doesn’t have the same limitations that some spiritual leaders would implement in a synagogue. As a congregation, the members of Degel Yehuda do not strictly observe all Yosef’s rules, but this one apparently suits their customs well, and they pray from a prayer book that he edited.
For D., it all comes down to his origins, what he grew up with from early childhood. Born to a Kurdish family in Jerusalem, he says he only knew small, family synagogues. “That was the atmosphere that governed the way we lived our life,” he says. “I would say that the natural atmosphere predicted what came later, what we would call the ideology regarding women’s participation, not the opposite, where some imported ideology dictated new habits from outside.”
D. adds that praying at home naturally fosters a different attitude within the family on a wide range of issues. “It is very meaningful for the children to experience prayers as part of everyday life, thus it is not some outside act but an integral part of the family’s customs,” he says.
And indeed, Degel Yehuda doesn’t have any rabbinical authority. It works out its own renewed traditions according to what each of the members brings with him or her. “The prayer shapes the family that hosts it, and the family also shapes the place. The prayers and the services benefit from that family’s customs and traditions. That’s the way I think it should be,” says D.
DEGEL YEHUDA was established in the late 1990s by a group of Sephardi men and women who wanted, above all, a place where they could pray in the way they remembered from their childhood. Yonatan Elazar, a 43-year-old architect, married to Ruti and father of three, is the major founder of Degel Yehuda. He is the son of the late Prof. Daniel Yehuda Elazar, whom the congregation is named after. Prof. Elazar was an American Jewish scholar and lecturer in political sciences. He founded the American Sephardi Federation in the 1970s, which brought together Jews who immigrated to the US from various Islamic countries.
“When we say ‘Sephardi Jews,’ we mean Jews who originated from Islamic countries or Jews expelled from Spain who lived in Turkey or Greece,” explains Yonatan Elazar.
The Sephardi community in the US has been there since the 17th century. They even took part in the American War of Independence, and to this day there are large Sephardi communities across America. The Elazar family, for instance, came from Saloniki, Greece.
“When I graduated from my studies in the US in 2000, my wife and I came back here with the experience of Jewish communities in which equality between the genders was obvious, accepted, adopted. We just couldn’t go backwards to a situation in which women couldn’t be part of the praying experience,” says Elazar, adding that he could see that this feeling was shared by many other Sephardim who spent time in the US and had no other choice but to join an Ashkenazi minyan, something the Elazars also did at first.
“But we have to admit that this stream – modern Orthodox – is not something that really suits Sephardim. We don’t feel comfortable with it. It is a problem for us and our culture. A Sephardi Jew will always refer to himself as ‘a Jew,’ not Orthodox or anything else, including some variations you may find here and there,” he says.
The first attempt to create a framework that would fit their need for a more egalitarian minyan led Elazar and a small group of like-minded friends to the Masorti movement. But soon even that was not a satisfying solution, and the search for the “real thing,” or the homey Sephardi framework, continued. At some point, the idea to create a new congregation was born.
“We didn’t have any plans for some kind of revolution, nor did we want to rebel against anything – we just wanted to feel at ease, to pray according to our fathers’ traditions and feel good about it,” explains Elazar.
The need to combine some kind of organic evolution was at the core of the search of the Elazars and their friends. “We wanted to establish something that would not be in contradiction to or in dissonance with the daily life of a family that feels and believes in equality,” he says, “yet would give us a sense of what we remembered from childhood and, at the same time, maintain our traditions and serve our present needs.”
Asked if he believes that a place like Degel Yehuda would become a trend, Elazar says, “Before we had Coca-Cola, nobody thought we’d need it. Now we have it, and there are quite a few people who cannot think of doing without it. So, besides this example, which is not such a spiritual one, I would say why not?”
In regard to the different customs (minhagim) of the congregation, Elazar says that here again, nothing is planned or conceived in advance to lead to any dramatic changes. But changes, or attempts to introduce long-forgotten Sephardi customs and traditions in a more contemporary context, do naturally occur.
For example, at the blessing of the kohanim, a woman declared that as a kohen’s daughter, she was entitled to step forward and bless the worshipers. “We didn’t prevent her from doing so,” says Elazar. “Again, it wasn’t planned or agreed upon beforehand, but no one minded. She felt it was the right thing to do, so she did it and blessed us all, and we were fine with it.”
After that incident, some of the members looked for sources that could place the act within the framework of the Halacha, through some ancient tradition renewed. “I see it as an organic development, which is exactly what we believe is the right thing to do,” says Elazar, “just as we never discussed in advance the mentioning of the Matriarchs in the repetition of the cantor. But somebody did it once, we all joined in spontaneously, and since then we mention them – that’s all.”
Regarding the eventual expansion of the small community, Elazar, like some of the other members, doesn’t feel the urge to reach out for too many new members. “We didn’t do any marketing or publicity. People find us and join, and they are welcome, but we’re just too busy building and consolidating our families, our life, our careers, so we feel fine with what we have achieved here as it is,” he says.
At Degel Yehuda there is an understanding that the worshipers cannot attend all the services, firstly because the congregation does not meet daily, and secondly because people also want, especially on the High Holy Days, to go to the synagogues they have attended since childhood. However, all the members – the exact number is always changing, but the core group totals about 25 to 30 – keep coming back on various occasions, while a smaller number meet every Shabbat eve in one of the members’ houses. However, bat mitzvas, where girls read from the Torah in front of the congregation at Shabbat services, have become quite common, and women read from the weekly Torah portion on Shabbat, using Sephardi tunes.
However, the group lacks people with synagogue skills. There are not enough members who can lead an entire service, though by enabling the women to take an active part in this task, things have improved somewhat.
“People come to us because they are missing something, not as a result of owning more than they need, so obviously it is not always easy to run a service with few people that have the required synagogue skills – be it a gabai, a Torah reader or a leader for the main part of the prayer. But we manage. We go on with this. It is too important for us,” says Elazar.
As a result, the congregation doesn’t have a Torah scroll of its own. Since all the members are active in other congregations as well, the Torah scrolls used for the Degel Yehuda services are borrowed from other communities. Elazar says he hopes one day they will be able to obtain one of their own. “Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll get a Torah as a gift from a guest who would enjoy as we do the special warm and homey atmosphere we have managed to create at Degel Yehuda.”
SINCE DEGEL Yehuda is formed by people from different origins within the large Sephardi world, the tunes and the melodies are quite varied. “In fact,” says Heftziba Cohen-Montagu, a facilitator at the pluralistic Elul beit midrash and one of the founders, who also serves as coordinator for the congregation, “if at one service most of us are of Moroccan origin, then that will be expressed in the prayers that day. If we have a majority of Kurdish, then there we go. It all depends on who is present, and that’s the beauty of this group,” she says.
Cohen-Montagu often hosts the service on Shabbat eve in their home. These Shabbat-welcoming ceremonies have a very special flavor for an outsider, but for D. and all the members this is what they had been accustomed to in their childhood.
“Every member brings a little something to eat or drink – and, of course, we say a blessing before consuming anything,” says D. “You have no idea how a little glass of arak and a few nuts or something can lift your spirits and introduce you to the warm and spiritual atmosphere of Shabbat. That’s the custom. That’s the right thing to do.”
Heftziba remarks that what led the members of Degel Yehuda to create the group was more a longing for a genuine Sephardi atmosphere and rites than the urge to have an egalitarian minyan.
“Of course, I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a place where I wouldn’t be allowed to read from the Torah or be counted for the minyan,” she explains, “but we felt the need for a place like Degel Yehuda even when we found some egalitarian minyanim elsewhere. We wanted the Sephardi rites, atmosphere and especially the beautiful Sephardi tunes and melodies. We just didn’t want to pray outside of that context.”