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Temple Beth Israel to host scholar, teach about Sephardic Judaism

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Rabbi Rifat Sonsino will teach about history and customs of Sephardic Jews from Jan. 10-12. Much of the event is free and open to the public.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Temple Beth Israel’s annual Scholar in Residence weekend is coming up, and this year’s topic is quite foreign — even to TBI’s own congregants.

TBI will host Rabbi Rifat Sonsino from Jan. 10-12 to speak about and display the history, culture and customs of Sephardic Jews. Sonsino will present on three topics over the course of the weekend. Performer and composer Juan De la Sierra will provide a presentation of Sephardic music.

Every portion of the event except Friday’s Sephardic-style congregational dinner and Sunday’s men’s club breakfast are free and open to the public. The dinner, which will feature entertainment from De la Sierra, and breakfast require an admission fee and a reservation. There is also a free lunch Saturday that requires a reservation.

Historically, Jewish people have been classified into three main groups: the Ashkenazim of central and eastern Europe, the Mizrahim of the Middle East and the Sephardim, which traces its root to the Iberian peninsula. Sephardi Jews began their diaspora into lands such as North Africa and Anatolia in the late 15th century, around the time of the Spanish Reconquista.

The vast majority of American Jews would be considered Ashkenazi. In fact, TBI Executive Director Isaac Azerad, who was born in Egypt, said he is the only Sephardic Jew who is a member of TBI’s congregation.

Sonsino, who is from Turkey, is Sephardic himself.

He received a Master’s degree in Hebrew literature from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1966 and a doctorate in Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975.

After Sonsino is introduced Friday, he will speak about Sephardic history, culture and religious practices and the ways they differ from other strains of Judaism. There will also be a Shabbat service before Sonsino gives a presentation about the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

On Saturday, Sonsino will chant a portion of the Torah and teach about differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

Sunday’s men’s club breakfast will feature a lecture about the Sabbatean movement, which started with the conversion of Sabbatai Zevi to Islam in the 17th century.

The weekend will obviously consist of many uniquely Sephardic traditions, but even commonplace Jewish rituals will have a Sephardic flavor. For example, Azerad said the reading of the Torah will contain different melodies and intonations that may seem foreign to the congregants of TBI. And Sonsino’s rendering will likely have specifically Turkish influence as well.

“It will be the very first time that a lot of the people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who have never heard of that, are suddenly going to be exposed to Sephardic music,” Azerad said.

“You would be surprised how much of an influence the Sephardic Jewry has in Israel nowadays. The popular music, for instance, is almost entirely Sephardic. A lot of the arts and theater are infused with Sephardic influence.”

To make a reservation, contact Temple Beth Israel at 941-383-3428 or email at [email protected]. This event is subsidized by the Charlotte P. Graver Fund at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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