When Joseph Dabby arrived in America from Iraq in 1972, and found his way to Kahal Joseph Congregation in Los Angeles, he was shocked. "It was like being back in the Old Country," he said.
"It was full of people who didn't even speak the same language; they were very far removed [from their roots] but they maintained everything the same -- the same melodies and the same traditions," said Dabby, now 56 and president of the congregation.
Kahal Joseph is a Sephardic melting pot of a synagogue; a shul whose members -- and whose 25 Torah scrolls -- come from places as remote as China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Iraq. Yet as disparate as all these locales are, all Kahal Joseph members share a common heritage, the Jewish Baghdadi tradition.
Baghdad, or Iraq, has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Jews have lived there since the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE.
"We are called Babylonians because we trace ourselves back to the destruction of the first Temple, when Babylonia's [King] Nebuchadnezer destroyed the Temple and brought the cream of Jewish society to be slaves in Iraq," Dabby said. "That is when they built the hanging gardens, and they were the top singers and top astronomers in Iraq."
This was also the time that the Jewish Baghdadi customs started to develop: soulful, emotional melodies that, having survived thousands of years, are still sung today, and a tradition of Jewish learning that had its apotheosis with the publication of the Babylonian Talmud in the third century.
Yet the board of Kahal Joseph is finding that a reliance on ancient traditions is not enough to ensure the survival of a synagogue.
"We need to bring in young families here," Dabby said. "Now we get them here because of loyalty, because of their parents, but when they [the young families] have children, their children go to school and become more intellectual; if we don't provide the proper services, then they go away and we lose them. And if we lose them, then we lose the synagogue, because they are the next generation. We are really looking for almost like a new beginning now. To rejuvenate young members who are starting new families, to have the synagogue give them something so they can keep it going rather than move to other synagogues."
The new beginning is coming in the form of a new rabbi, Rabbi Haim Ovadia from New York.
Ovadia, 36, was born in Jerusalem and raised in an Iraqi family, allowing him knowledge of the Baghdadi traditions. He is also college educated and in the middle of pursuing a Ph.D. in Jewish history at New York University. Dabby and his board are hoping that young families find this mix enticing.
"Rabbi Ovadia is very intellectual, and very open-minded," Dabby said. "And we really have big hopes that he will make a big difference for us, that he will be able to question things, and bring in our young people -- who are really the ones who question things. My generation may go by faith and accept things. But the new generation is talking about things like organ transplants, and coming out of the closet -- many issues which our old rabbis don't know how to deal with. We hope that this rabbi will be able to be more current."
Ovadia will begin his tenure at Kahal Joseph on Rosh Hashana, when he will officiate alongside Kahal Joseph's two cantors, Chazan Aryeh Ovadia (no relation), and Chazan Sassoon Ezra. While the cantors will be singing the melodies from the Old Country, Rabbi Ovadia will be working to make the service more user-friendly by explaining the services in English.
"We did not have that before, and we are very happy about it, because we need it," Dabby said. "There are a lot of people who grew up reading Hebrew, knowing the prayers, but not knowing what we are doing -- so we are very excited that the rabbi is going to explain everything as we go along."
For Rabbi Ovadia, this move to Los Angeles presents him with a challenge. "I hope to be able to create a sense of unity in the shul," he said in a phone interview from New York. "I want to be able to unite the people around the central theme of being an Orthodox, modern Jew in the 21st century, and in order to do that we have to maintain the Iraqi traditions, with modern ideas. I hope to make the shul into a really active, dynamic place, where everyone can feel that they belong."