Reaching Sephardic Jews
The dictionary defines Sephardic (pronounced seh-far-dik) Jews as members of the occidental branch of European Jews settling in Spain and Portugal…”1 That dictionary definition however, does not provide the more common understanding of the term. In North America today, Sephardic has come to refer, not just to Jews from Spain and Portugal, but to all Jews who are not Eastern European, that is, Ashkenazi (pronounced ahsh-ken-ah-zee).
The Sephardim (plural of Sephardic) can be understood in terms of a large family, which is made up of a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Jews from Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Israel, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq and India are all part of the family. Within the family, the differences and unique culture of each region are maintained. Individual groups of Jews are Baghdadi or Persian or Libyan. To those not in the family however, they are all are Sephardic. I would, for example, feel comfortable referring to myself as Sephardic, even though my background is Iraqi.
Sephardic Jews living in North America are a minority within a minority, in light of a much larger and better-organized Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish community. For the family of Sephardim, everything from language and food to religious observance differs from that of the Ashkenazim.
Like most people, Sephardic Jews appreciate those who take the time and effort to gain a deeper understanding of their culture. Taking the time to learn about Sephardim will enrich our understanding and improve our witness to this segment of Jewish people.
Four distinctives to keep in mind when witnessing to Sephardic Jews:
1. Generally you won’t find the same strong opposition to Jesus and the gospel message in the Sephardi communities as is common with European Jews.
That is not to say that all Sephardic Jews are ready to accept the Messiah, but there usually is a greater initial willingness to explore the gospel. Some of the younger Sephardi Jews who have adopted an attitude from their interaction with American Jews would be exceptions. But those closest to their Sephardic roots are quite open to discussion. For example, both my father and grandfather went to Christian schools, studied the New Testament and considered their relationships with Christians as some of the dearest they had.
When I was confronted with the gospel message, my initial response was not fear or defensiveness, but an unhindered openness to a new idea. I seemed to have a freedom that many other Jews do not feel. Abraham Lavender, professor in Jewish history, writes about a possible reason for this difference:
“Sephardic Judaism, in contrast to an Ashkenazi…’Ghetto’ mentality, developed in a pluralistic society of relative tolerances and multi-dimensional values where the Jew could take the best of the non-Jewish humanistic cultural values, adapt them to express his Jewishness, and still remain distinctly Jewish.”2
Sephardim on the whole do not seem to feel as threatened by the gospel. How does this affect our witness?
Suggestion: We have a great opportunity to work within the freedom that the Sephardi culture provides. Do not raise objections that are not there. Also, don’t feel the need to adapt your language or express the gospel in a particularly Jewish way. Using expressions to make the hearer more comfortable is not necessary because the level of discomfort is not as extreme.
2. Family obligations hold a much greater importance in making decisions of faith than does personal Jewishness.
Rarely will a Sephardi Jew tell Jewish believers in Jesus that they are no longer Jewish because of their faith in Jesus. Rather, the issue is one of honor and family pride, reflecting the cultures of Sephardic Jewish origins. An aside, we see this in the first section of the book of Esther. The King was angry with Queen Vashti because she didn’t obey him—she shamed the king. As a result, the king replaced her. For Sephardim, the importance of honor is very similar to that of King Ahasuerus. Investigation is more likely to cease due to family pressure than reasons of Jewishness. Let me share a story that illustrates this point.
Paul, a Persian Jewish man in his mid-20s, had been a believer for about a year. He was meeting with a Jew for Jesus for discipleship. Paul had moved out his parent’s house and was regularly attending church and active in his faith. One afternoon, Paul set up an appointment for his mother and sister to meet our missionary, Stan, at a coffee shop near their home. Paul’s mother asked Stan to convince Paul to move back home and work for his father. Stan mentioned that Paul would need to continue attending church and remain active in his faith. The mother stopped Stan in mid sentence. She said that Paul could believe in Jesus; going to church however, was an entirely different matter. Paul’s father had said “no” to church. She explained, “If he disobeys his father’s request, it brings shame on the family. It is our tradition that the son listens to his father.” Paul’s sister added, “If Paul does this I will never marry.” The problem that Paul’s family had was not a question of his Jewishness, but of family obligation. For many Sephardim, family plays a much greater role in deciding matters of faith than for many Ashkenazi Jewish families. How does this affect our witness?
Suggestion: Be aware of the pressure the individual may face. When possible, try to relate to the household rather than exclusively to the individual.
3. There is a great pride in Sephardi culture.
Sephardim have long felt the pressure to assimilate into the European Jewish community, but they have great pride in their unique heritage. Today, Sephardim are gaining a voice to express their unique expression of Jewish identity. This pride in Sephardi heritage is seen vividly at New York City’s Shearith Israel congregation.
Upon entering the synagogue, you are met with a reminder that this is the first and oldest congregation in America, founded in 1654. The Upper West Side building is new. The walls boast of Sephardi contributions to Jewish life in America. Names appear like Edie Gorme, Neil Sedaka, and Nathan Cordozo. Men wearing top hats and tuxedos speak to each other in Ladino, a Jewish dialect of Spanish. The service is high and the cantor could pass for a professional opera singer. Formality and a sense of majesty pervade the entire service.
The Sephardim have wonderful and very exotic traditions—traditions that have long been overshadowed by the European definition of Jewishness. When we talk about “Jewish music” for example, many of us think of Klezmer, or the style of music you would hear from “Fiddler on the Roof.” The mail order catalog “The Source for Everything Jewish” has a severe lack of anything Sephardic! Sephardic Jews value their culture and naturally do not want it to be overshadowed by their Ashkenazi cousins. Let me give you a sense of this richness with examples of a couple of Sephardic traditions:
Spanish Jewish communities living in Mexico and the American Southwest will eat soup made of bread, water and salt before a funeral. The day of the funeral, they will fast. It is considered a way for the mourner to show respect for the person who recently passed away. Meat, fruit and other tasty foods are not eaten near the time of the funeral. Doing so would be considered ostentatious and inappropriate.
In Iraq, all weddings were arranged. The betrothed couple was not allowed to spend time together alone. Before the wedding, the bride to be would receive gifts of fruit and home made sweets on Purim from her husband’s family. It was traditional to give two gold coins at a wedding. Instead of wearing a ring, the woman would wear golden bracelets on her ankles.
Not all Jews do things the same way. Is one way more Jewish than another? No, of course not. These traditions are as varied as the places where Jews live or have lived. How does this affect our witness?
Suggestion: If your orientation is geared to Ashkenazi Jews, try to broaden your focus. Don’t assume that “yiddishkeit” equals all varieties of Jewishness. Not all Jews are familiar with Yiddish or the “New York Jewish” culture. My family spoke Arabic, Hindi, Hebrew and Aramaic! Affirming the unique heritage among Sephardim will go a long way in developing a good relationship. By recognizing the richness of Sephardi culture, we open doors to increased witnessing encounters.
4. Sephardim, particularly Jews from Arab lands, have a strong connection to Israel.
Recent immigrants to North America (less than 25 years) have a strong connection to Israel as the center of the Jewish world. Many speak Hebrew, have large families in Israel and feel connected through a common culture. Israel’s Jewish population is over half Sephardic. It is reasonable therefore that Sephardic Jews will have a greater affinity to Israel than Jews who have lived in North America for a longer period of time. Ashkenazim may refer to Brooklyn as “the old country.” The Sephardim do not have the same immigrant experience. Often Sephardi Jews did not come through Ellis Island; they never lived on the Lower East Side, and didn’t live through the history that took place in those years. As a result, Israel is the heart of the Sephardic world. How does this affect our witness?
Suggestion: Many of the Jewish words you know are likely to be Yiddish, a language that Ashkenazi Jews identify with. Sephardim respond much more quickly to a Hebrew expression, even if they do not speak the language. That does not mean you need to know Hebrew to relate to a Sephardic Jew—but they probably will not relate to Yiddish or Eastern European flavored Jewishness.
We hope this information will prove helpful to you as God brings Jewish people across your path. The next time you meet a Jewish person you can ask, “Are you Ashkenazi or Sephardic?” Whichever they are, they will be pleased that you know the difference!
- “Sephardic,” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1983.
- Gino, Alisa Meyuhas ed., Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean World After 1492, Portland: Frank Cass, 1992. Article by Abraham Lavender, “The Sephardic Revival,” Pg. 311.
Josh Sofaer is the leader of the Los Angeles branch of Jews for Jesus. He is one of four boys, but no one else in his immediate family have come to faith yet. Josh previously led the organization’s New York branch and pioneered their children’s program on the East Coast. He received his theological training at Western Seminary. He and his wife, Annette, have two children, Eliana and Taliah.