Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing.
Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.
While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice.
“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.”
The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.
“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said. “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.”
In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.
“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.
The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts.
In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year.
“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.”
There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides.
The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi.
Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.
The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.
He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.
“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.
While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups.
In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.
“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”
Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.
This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada.
While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator.
“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said.
In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.
Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood.
The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there.
“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”
The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center.
When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge.
“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said.
Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.
“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said.
One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.
“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said.
While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis.
“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”