by Joanne Levy, President, Sassoon Yehuda Sephardi Synagogue
Often when I meet people for the first time, people assume that I’m Sephardi because of my husband, and are surprised when I tell them that both my parents’ families are from Egypt, and were founding members of the Sydney Sephardi Synagogue, whilst my in laws are also from Egypt, and were founding members of the Sephardi Synagogue here in Melbourne.
Unlike in many overseas communities, us Sephardi Jews (predominately from Middle East, India, Africa, and Southern Europe) are a minority here in the Melbourne Jewish community. Most of the Melbourne kosher caterers, and Jewish organisations focus on foods, music, languages, and culture that is heavily influenced from Eastern Europe.
We are surrounded by greetings of “good/gut shobbos”, platters of herring and gefilte fish, and tunes that are unfamiliar instead of ‘Shabbat Shalom’, and the spices, food and musical sounds of our traditions, that are part of our minhagim.
There are so many misconceptions about Sephardi Jewry regarding our traditions, and our foods. There is so much more to us than eating rice and kitinyot on Pesach.
There were once vibrant Jewish communities, for two thousand years in the Middle East, until 1948, when almost 1 million Jews were expelled. Those communities are now gone, and the Jews have resettled in Israel, UK, Canada, USA, Australia and other countries.
I never had any intention of becoming a Synagogue President, I was happy to run events, and be a supportive presence on the Committee. However, in 2018 when we were advised that it was likely that our beautiful Synagogue would have to be sold, I nominated myself as President at the 2019 AGM to ensure that that did not happen. With my corporate background, and years of experience in management, I created and implemented new ways that would not only address our dwindling membership but also look at long term strategies to ensure there was a thriving Sephardi presence in Melbourne.
There are only two Sephardi Synagogues in Melbourne, our Sassoon Yehuda Sephardi Synagogue and the Rambam Synagogue. So it’s important that our traditions, our cultural heritage, and our minhagim are also emb
raced like Ashkenazi, Chabad, Yiddish and other such traditions. The past couple of years of COVID lock downs and restrictions have been difficult for us, like other Synagogues, but with a small member base and no major sponsors it has been challenging to ensure the Synagogue survived. Thanks to the current, dedicated and supportive Committee, to myself and Treasurer Abraham Cohen, we have not only survived but are now on the path to thriving.
We have a wonderful Rabbinical Team, under the leadership of Rabbi Benjamin Kessly, ensuring our tunes, and the running of services are in the true Sephardi manner. You don’t have to be Sephardi to attend our Synagogue. We are an all welcoming, warm, and friendly community, and we love that we have a diverse range of people attending.
We are moving forward in a positive way, in not only running events but introducing programs (including Bar/Bat Mitzvah) which I believe are key in not only attracting people to our Synagogue, but also educating the next generation of Sephardim customs.
We are in the process of making our Synagogue hall a living, breathing museum where treasured items are on display. We hope more schools will visit us, and see our sifrei torah, and our beautiful building. To date, school groups have loved the learning experience we provide. And we have plans to document the lives of our seniors, those who were refugees and made new lives in Australia, as well as a cook book with the special recipes of our members. Honouring the past is very important to us.
Our affiliated charity, Friends of Sassoon Yehuda (FOSY), provides kosher meals and care packs to families who are dealing with financial stress, illness or other stressful issues. And our latest initiative, Chesed Rivka, is unique and I believe is the only such program in Australia. We have care packs, virtual hugs, for women dealing with the stress and loneliness of pregnancy loss, IVF, and infertility.
For example, recently we were referred to a family where the woman had suffered pregnancy loss and was bleeding heavily in hospital. We provided a care pack for the woman and delivered meals to her husband.
And now, we offer confidential assistance with Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity/mikveh) to any woman in Australia and New Zealand, with advice in either Sephardi or Ashkenazi tradition. I absolutely love this initiative to help women who may not have access to a Rabbi, or may feel uncomfortable in asking theirs about personal details regarding menstruation, intimacy, or other family purity issues. Women can ask their questions to our caring FOSY Coordinator, Diane Stollard, who will liaise with Rabbi Kessly, and then get an answer for the woman. And advice can be provided in either Sephardi or Ashkenazi customs. It’s all confidential, and we are here to help. Our focus is to assist women, and couples with shalom bayit.
We may be a minority in a minority here in Melbourne, but our customs, our foods and the way we do things are wonderful, diverse, and special. And we want to ensure that our presence remains thriving, and vibrant within the Jewish community.
Joanne Levy is the President of the Sassoon Yehuda Sephardi Synagogue, and its affiliated charity Friends of Sassoon Yehuda – https://linktr.ee/Sephardivic
She is happily married to Jacques Levy, and they have two gorgeous teen sons, and one handsome fur-boy.
Joanne is also a USA Today Bestselling author with 30+ published novels, writing under a pseudonym.
She loves walking with her beloved dog, Juddy, chatting with her BFFs, reading, writing, watching movies, and also loves pretty dresses.