Rochester New Yorks Sephardic Community Renaissance A Kodak Moment to Last a Lifetime

The Torah processionBack in 2001, were you to have asked Dr. Ralph and Limor Madeb, two New York City transplants, to describe their initial impression of Rochester, NY, most likely their response would have echoed Dorothys famous line from The Wizard of Oz, Were not in Brooklyn anymore!

Actually, it was just Ralph back thenpursuit of the titles urologist and urologic surgeon at the University of Rochester Medical School and Strong Memorial Hospital was what brought the young couple to Rochester and was at the root of their migr status.

These two uprooted trees from Brooklyn were left to unravel the mysteries of life out-of-town, as New York City dwellers invariably refer to any place west of the Hudson River and north of the Bronx.

In those early days, the Madebs life was characterized by the interrogatory phrase mah zeh (whats this)? As in, mah zeh? No kibbeh, lahamajene, or sambusak?

Much to Ralphs delight, however, there was no need to exclaim, mah zeh, regarding a Sephardic minyan. That did exist and had for quite some time.

A handful of Sephardic men from Ottoman-ruled Monastir, Yugoslavia (today known as Bitola, Macedonia), were the original Sephardic migrs who arrived in Rochester in 1906 in search of economic and religious freedom.

Despite the daunting challenges of acculturation, such as mastering a new language and social mores, for these pioneers, establishing a place of worship was a task of paramount importance; one that superseded all other concerns. And in that first year, 1906, they established Congregation Ohr Yisrael (Light of Israel), which is believed to be New York States oldest Sephardic synagogue, outside the New York metropolitan area.

At the time of the Madebs arrival, Congregation Light of Israel boasted 150 members. What it lacked, however, was a permanent home.

As congregants gathered in prayer in rented quarters on the premises of another synagogue, the soon-to-be Doctor Madeb already had visions of a stand-alone building, one that would provide fitting framework for the Rochester Sephardic communitys time hallowed Sephardic customs and liturgy. He came by these aspirations honestly, faithfully following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Isaac Madeb, founder and former president of Brooklyns Sephardic Lebanese Congregation, and in the grand tradition of the illustrious rabbis who so fundamentally shaped his commitment to his Sephardic heritage, including: Rabbi Jacob and Rabbi Saul Kassin, Rabbi Yizhak Mirsky, Rabbi Moshe Lagnado, Rabbi Eli Mansour, Rabbi Mordechai Attie, as well as his uncles Albert and Eli Mouhadeb.

With a building of its own, Madeb hoped to restore to Congregation Light of Israel some of the synagogues faded glory, particularly to the elders of the community, those who nostalgically recalled the communitys proud past.

During its long history, the synagogue has undergone numerous restorations and address changes, as its membership waxed and waned with each successive wave of immigration and emigration.

First located on Hanover Street, in 1960, by which time the synagogues ranks had swelled to 160 families, Congregation Light of Israel built a home of its own on Norton Street where it remained until 1998. Since then, the remaining Monastirlis, together with recently arrived Sephardim hailing from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, and Israel, along with some Ashkenazi brethren, have conducted Sephardic services in a rented space on the premises of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Monroe Avenue in Rochester.

Over the past several years, with an influx of young Sephardic families, it became abundantly clear that the rented space could no longer adequately meet the needs of this vibrant and growing congregation. The search was on for a suitable new home, one wholly owned by Congregation Light of Israel.

In his capacity as synagogue president, together with a dedicated cadre of new and seasoned members including: Dr. Dan Daniel, President Emeritus and current Board Chairman, Alan Brodsky, Vice President, Jeff Springut, Vice President and Light of Israels dynamic young rabbi, Rabbi Avi Mammon, Dr. Madeb stood at the vanguard of the labor intensive effort to find and build a new home for Congregation Light of Israel.

Many embraced this challenge, offering their talents, time and money. Hyman Jebb and Donna Levy, Michael and Eileen Grossman, Alan Brodsky, Dennis Kessler, Is and Rachel Levy, Drs.  Eva Pressman and Seth Zeidman, Lyn and Jeffrey Springut, Henry and Gracia Zylberstein, Dr. Isaac and Lily Madeb,  and Dr. Ralph and Limor Madeb made major gifts to the building fund.

As might be imagined, the transformation from renter to landlord did not happen overnight.  Perseverance and fierce determination were the requisite characteristics that enabled these dedicated men and women to weather the numerous setbacks and disappointments inherent in such an ambitious undertaking.

Yet there were felicitous milestones to celebrate even before the goal of an independent edifice was brought to fruition.

In June 2005, Light of Israel welcomed two new Sifrei Torah into its midsta communal Torah, purchased with monies raised by members of Light of Israel and another donated by Ruthie and David Cohen, memorializing family members. A joyous procession, representing a cross section of Rochesters Jewish community, accompanied these two Sifrei Torah to their new home in Light of Israels rented synagogue.  Once the procession reached its destination, the celebrants danced, sang and enjoyed refreshments.  Most meaningful of all, attendees were invited to inscribe a letter in the new Torahs.

On April 9, 2006, Rochesters Jewish community added a fifth question to the traditional Passover Four Questions. What on earth, would motivate some 300 Jews from New York City, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona and Rochester, to assemble in the Hyatt Hotel three days before the Passover holiday? The answer was clear, it was in order to partake in a celebration of incomparable beauty and joyLight of Israels centennial gala. Attendees entered a flower-festooned banquet hall and were treated to enchanting strains of Sephardic music (imported from the bastion of Sephardic lifeBrooklyn, New York). In addition, attendees were introduced to Main Event Caterings mouth-watering cuisine which they savored along with the evenings bittersweet blend of reminiscences in the form of speeches, and a video specifically prepared for the occasion.

In the tradition of Miriam Ha Neviyah (the prophetess Miriam), the synagogues bnot chayil (Sisterhood) felt compelled to add their distinctive mark to this momentous milestone, under the capable chairmanship of Limor Madeb, and committee members Lyn Springut (typist) and Arlene Hisiger (editor), along with contributing writers: Olga Elbaz, Claudette Entenberg, Dennis Kessler, Limor and Dr. Ralph Madeb, Paulette and Rabbi Tzvi Cohen, Malkie and  Dr. Peter Benson and Arlene Hisiger, a hard cover cookbook titled: Cinnamon, Saffron & Sesame was published to commemorate the event.

With this cookbook, underwritten by Dennis and Larry Kessler and dedicated to the cherished memory of their mom, Molly Havio Kessler, the committee endeavored to uniquely pay tribute to this joyous occasion by recognizing that, (as stated in the books introduction), recipes are not created in a vacuum, rather they emerge from cultural wellsprings. By including national perspectives along with the featured recipes, we hope to recreate, in some small measure, the cultural nuances that inform each recipe. Proceeds from the sale of the cookbook were used to purchase new talitot for the synagogue.

BEzrat Hashem, the dream to establish a permanent, free-standing home for Rochesters Sephardic community was finally realized this year.

Now serenely ensconced at 1675 Monroe Avenue, one of Rochesters main thoroughfares, the understated elegance of its stone-bedecked faade (meticulously sourced from a quarry near Chevron), the towering magnificence of its Aron Kodesh, flanked by brilliantly-hued stain glass panels, and the richness of its wooden bimah complemented by a finely-etched glass mechitza, in concert, belie the endless hours of painstaking effort invested to  aesthetically reflect the aspirations of this fervently committed community.

With naught in their coffers, a record 1.5 million dollars was raised to fund this campaign. And with an eye toward creating a spiritual sphere of unparalleled aesthetic excellencethroughout the tri-state areathe committee commissioned Israels Machon Friedman and Kibbutz Lavi to fashion the synagogues accoutrements.

The synagogues inauguration represents a turning point in its more than 100 year history and the completion of this monumental task was celebrated in grand style. On June 22, 2012, as the community ushered in Shabbat Parashat Korach, the festivities began.

Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, was invited to serve as scholar-in-residence. The many who attended his Shabbat morning sermon, as well as his afternoon class, benefitted from his extensive knowledge and elucidating drashot. Following Shabbat morning services, an elaborate meat Kiddush, sponsored by the Brodsky, Grossman and Madeb families was enjoyed by all.

On Sunday, June 24, 2012, after partaking of pre-procession refreshment, the festivities continued with a grand procession from the Madeb residence to the recently inaugurated Light of Israel Synagogue. Replete with celebratory music emanating from a Torah Truck decked out with flashing lights and brightly-colored flags, the procession began to slowly wind its way down Monroe Avenue. As the pace quickened, revered rabbis, their souls long ignited by Sinaitic fire, and fresh-faced yeshivah students danced side-by-side with abandon. As children (and perhaps some adults) enjoyed the contents of their candy bags, the procession escorted a new Sefer Torah donated to Light of Israel by Dr. Ralph and Limor Madeb, in honor of their parents, Dr. Isaac and Lily Madeb and Henry and Gracia Zylberstein. Dignitaries and new born babies witnessed this sacred slice of Rochester Jewish history.

Once at the synagogue, many took advantage of the opportunity to inscribe a letter in the newly donated Torah. A delicious dairy reception capped off the event.

The coup de grace of this celebration-saturated weekend was Sunday nights opulent gala reception held in the Grand Lilac Room of the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.

The Emmanuel Shalom band, Yitzchak ben Attar, Yisrael Ha Levi, and Ayal Amram, all of Brooklyn, New York, provided rousing Sephardic music that set the celebratory tone.

Bedecked in their finery, the celebrants delighted in the main events exquisitely prepared cuisine while intently listening to the heartfelt remarks of Dr. Dan Daniel, President Emeritus, and the presentations of  Synagogue President Dr. Ralph Madeb, Synagogue Rabbi Avi Mammon, who, fittingly, was  introduced by Rabbi Nathan Siegel, rabbi of the synagogue Rabbi Mammon attended in his youth.

In his remarks, Dr. Madeb commented on the small vision of what we (the Rochester Jewish community) can do when we all work together. He likened the experience of erecting Light of Israels new building to that of the Mishkan. He underscored that unlike both Batei Mikdash, the Mishkan was impervious to destruction due to Bnei Yisraels combined contributions to its creation and expressed the fervent hope that Congregation Light of Israels building would similarly be spared destruction in light of the communitys singular effort to realize the goal of a new building.

Rabbi Mammon noted that much as Yaakov Avinu had the foresight to plant Atzei Shiitim in Goshen so that Bnei Yisrael could later, with heart and soul, fashion from its lumber the Mishkans Aron Kodesh and Shulchan, so too, by committing heart and soul to this endeavor we invite Hashems presence into our Beit Knesset, Rabbi Mammon said.

Jerusalem stone plaques were awarded to Donna and Hyman Jebb Levy, Dennis Kessler, Drs. Eva Pressman and Seth Zeidman in recognition of their major contributions to the building fund. The Farash Foundation as well as the Light of Israel Sisterhood were also presented with awards and cited for their support.

Deepest gratitude was expressed to Lyn and Jeff Springut for their dedicated efforts on behalf of the building project.

Awards and special mention were given to Michael and Eileen Grossman for their unstinting support of the building effort, who, in turn, called Alan Brodsky (principal building project manager), to the podium to receive his share of praise for overseeing the building process 24/7.

Mr. Brodsky regaled the audience with his humorous recreation of birthing a buildinga testament to sheer will and deep faith.

Yes, it was a weekend to remember; a fitting end to years worth of hands-on planning by the building committee: Rabbi Avi Mammon, Alan Brodsky, Dr. Dan Daniel, Jeff Springut, and Dr. Ralph Madeb and countless others, who in their own way, helped to build this magnificent mikdash meat (home).

Yet one thing remains the same.  The only place in Rochester to savor some killer kibbeh is chez Madeband theyre hoping you will!