Learning from each other through tragedy

What unites us is what makes us stronger. Am Yisrael Chai!

Legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek hosts a post-Passover Mimouna celebration in his home, together with prime minister Shimon Peres and US consul-general Morris Draper, in 1986 (photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
Legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek hosts a post-Passover Mimouna celebration in his home, together with prime minister Shimon Peres and US consul-general Morris Draper, in 1986
(photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
Passover is always a time of renewal and strength for the Jewish people, and yet this Passover was difficult for the larger Jewish community of New York. During the intermediate days of the holiday, a young Jewish couple, newly engaged, died after their car was struck by two other individuals, who were allegedly drunk and drag racing. On Thursday, April 5, hours before we were to light candles and celebrate the final days of the holiday, thousands gathered at a joint funeral to mourn the loss of Yisroel Levin and Elisheva Kaplan. What was supposed to be a joyous day leading into a joyous Yom Tov turned dark and desolate.
While mourning with my Jewish brothers and sisters, I drew strength from the example set just months ago by the Sephardi community as they mourned the deaths of Aliza Azan and three of her young children, who died after their hanukkia caused a house fire in Flatbush, New Jersey. Again, a time of joy became one of sorrow. And yet the Sephardi community did not break. They mourned together and overcame together. They coped with the grief by delving more deeply into our shared faith and following Halacha, Jewish law. Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on the community to renew their kavana (intent) and to embrace avoda (service of God).
I find this to be a beautiful way to deal with such tragedy. I was pleased to see that, to honor the bride and groom killed during Passover, Yeshiva Darchei Torah has pledged to learn the entire shas (six orders of Mishna and Talmud) in the next month.
Seeing these similarities in our approaches to tragedy reminded me of the many similarities between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. We must work harder to be a single Am Yisrael, focusing on what unites us rather than our differences. We may have different ethnic backgrounds, different ways of praying and different customs, yet we all spent weeks preparing for and celebrating Passover. In the Haggada, we read “Vehi Sheamda,” a reminder that there have been and continue to be enemies to the Jewish people in every generation. These enemies seek to annihilate us, yet the Holy One blessed be He protects us. As we continue to see antisemitism on the rise worldwide, “Vehi Sheamdah” took on even greater importance for my family and myself at this year’s seders.
While acknowledging our similarities, we can also grow by adopting some of each other’s practices and learning from one another. I attended a modern Orthodox high school, which granted me the opportunity to meet Sephardim my own age. I was struck by how similar we were. We were all young men struggling to mature, finding our place in the world and serve God to the best of our abilities. Nevertheless, I noticed almost immediately that my Sephardi classmates brought a new level of kavana to prayer. They embodied “Eizohi avoda shebelev? Zu tefillah” (“What is the service of the heart? That is prayer”). From then on, I strove to emulate them when praying in synagogue – whether an Ashkenazi or a Sephardi one – and by bringing my emuna, my faith, in the Master of the universe into everything I do.
Since leaving high school, I have continued to learn from and grow by the example set by my Sephardi peers. For instance, I have been told by several Jewish colleagues whose affiliation with their Judaism might be mild, that whenever they go into business with a member of the Sephardi community, their new business partner implores them not to work on Shabbat or Yom Tov, even to the financial detriment of the new business partner – so strong is their devotion.
This fear of heaven also leads them to care for their community in a truly beautiful way. It is no secret that the Sephardi community has many intra-community programs and social services, such as Sephardi Bikur Holim, which works diligently to care for the sick. Most inspiring, however, is the way that the Sephardi community cares for its children with special needs. The community goes out of its way to support them and incorporate them into Jewish life; this is evident to anyone who is familiar with the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan and Magen David Yeshiva.
My yeshiva dean always says that there is much for the Ashkenazi community to learn from the Sephardi community. Whether it is innate or instilled in them from a young age, Sephardim’s level of emuna and kavana during prayer is admirable and striking.
While most of the philanthropic leaders of the Sephardi community do not seek outward attention or accolades from mainstream society, they deserve it. We can learn so much from them. They are a holy community and deserve our commendation and respect.
As we begin to look forward to Shavuot and move forward from the tragedy of a bride and groom killed so soon before their wedding, we must also look to our Sephardi neighbors for strength, kavana and brotherhood. What unites us is what makes us stronger. Am Yisrael Chai!
The author is a New York City-based public relations executive.