Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community was on stage during the International Congress on Syrian Jews in the American Diaspora, held recently in Mexico City and attended by nearly 600 people.
Sarina Roffé, a community member who has achieved international recognition for her research, genealogical studies and writing about our community, was one of 23 researchers invited to present at the conference. Ms Roffé provided an overview of the 100-year history of Brooklyn’s Syrian community from its inception in 1907 on the Lower East Side until today. While many of the researchers are university professors, Ms. Roffé provides an insider’s view of our community and was able to dispel myths and inaccuracies that come from occasional observers who cannot see the community as a whole.
The conference was organized to include researchers from around the world who specialize in Syrian Jewish culture and tradition in order to understand the dynamics of the communities formed by Aleppan and Damascene Jewish immigrants in the Americas. Social and academic researchers brought up-to-date information about the different cultural and religious aspects associated with the communities formed in the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. In addition, there was much discussion about how the Jews from Aleppo and Damascus integrated their native identities into newly adopted countries.
The program began with an opening ceremony, where the organizing institutions and the host communities welcomed the congress speakers and guests. Writer and Israeli poet Amnon Shamosh amused the Congress with his childhood memories of Aleppo, followed by a full festive night of Oriental music, dances and Syrian dishes with a Mexican twist.
The presentations were of top academic quality. The first part of the program was centered in the culture and heritage of the Jews in Aleppo and Damascus, emphasizing the cultural wealth of its rabbinical literature and customs. Dr. Zvi Zohar of Bar Ilán University discussed the rabbis of Syria in the first half of the 20th century until the end of the French Mandate period. Dr. Abraham Marcus of the University of Texas (Austin) focused on the difficulty the Alliance Schools had in Aleppo, as opposed to their widespread acceptance in other cities.
The second panel referred to the popular culture in the descendants of Syrian Jews in the use of language, superstitions and daily life. Dr. Jacobo Sefami of the University of California at Irvine provided the audience with a hilarious discussion of his attempt to preserve some kibehs packed in his suitcase by his mother as he came through US customs and experienced life in Texas and California.
The third panel was dedicated to the analysis of the interaction between the Jews and Arabs of Syria in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, emphasizing similarities and differences. In particular, Dr. Jeffrey Lesser of Emory University presented a fascinating discussion of “Jews as Arabs and Arabs as Jews: Rethinking Ethnic Relations in Brazil.”
The cultural geography, business, education, religion and the role of women was discussed in the panel on Syrian Jews in Mexico. In this panel, Dr. Liz Hamui Sutton of the National Autonomous University of Mexico presented an interesting discussion of the trend toward increased observance during the past 20 years by the Aleppan and Damascene communities of Mexico City.
The unique nature of Brooklyn’s community was focused on in the panel on Syrian Jews in North America because it is the largest Syrian Jewish community in the world. In particular, Brooklyn’s community has a heavily developed infrastructure through its Bikur Holim, community center, business advisory program, job bank, senior citizen programs, drug rehabilitation, medical referrals, gamachs, yeshivot, etc. These services have not been duplicated in as much depth by any other community in the Diaspora, Jewish or non-Jewish.
During this panel, Sarina Roffé presented, providing accurate information about Brooklyn’s Syrian community and in many cases corrected misinformation presented in the media. Also presenting were Dr. Jane Gerber of City University, Dr. Reeva Simon of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Joelle Bahloul of Indiana University. Dr. Simon compared the development of the Syrian Jewish community and the Syrian Arab and Christian communities. Dr. Gerber noted that the leadership in the Syrian Jewish community led to its comprehensive development as an autonomous community. Dr. Bahloul, who is of Algerian descent, presented on her observations of the community after living in Brooklyn for a year.
Finally, the last panel focused on the experiences of the Syrian Jews in Latin America, with specialists of Brazil, Argentina and Israel. Dr. Margalit Bejarano of Hebrew University of Jerusalem presented on “Rabbinical Literature as a Source of Study of Syrian Jews in Buenos Aires” and Dr. Susana Brauner of Argentinean University for Enterprises presented on “Argentinean Syrian Jews: Religiousness and Political Alignments (1960-1990).” Dr. Rachel Mizrahi of Universidad de San Pablo, Brasil gave fabulous insight on the Syrian Jews in Brazil and Batia Siebzehner of Hebrew University presented on the Shas movement among the Syrian communities of Latin America.
Sponsored by Banque Safdie, the Congress was organized by Alianza Monte Sinaí (Damascus and Lebanese Jewish community); Comunidad Maguén David (Aleppan Jewish community); Universidad Hebraica (Higher Education Institution of the Jewish Community in Mexico); Jewish Culture Program at the Universidad Iberoamericana (a program that fosters the development of Jewish culture at the Iberoamericana University); and the Sephardic Latin American Federation.
Besides the participating academics, the Congress was attended by representatives and leaders of diverse Syrian Jewish communities from Israel, the US and Argentina. These leaders interacted with members of the Mexican Jewish community who presented initiatives to improve inter-communication and greater unite the congregations of descendants of Aleppan and Damascene Jews around the world to preserve their cultural inheritance.
The International Congress “The Syrian Jews in the American Diaspora” opened new possibilities for global and local encounters that can impact the preservation of Syrian Jewish cultural heritage. Future international congresses are being planned for San Paolo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Based on information provided by Sarina Roffe and conference organizers Dr. Liz Hamui Halabe, Renee Dayan and Marcos Metta. For more information about the congress, visit www.judaismosirio.com.