Rabbi Shmuel Miller, founder of Midrasho Shel Shem and a sofer (Torah scribe), died over the Rosh Hashanah holiday on Sept. 5. Los Angeles’ Sephardic community has lost one of its most beloved figures.
Rabbi Miller, known affectionately to his friends and community as “R’bbe Shmuel,” was the founder and spiritual leader of the unique L.A. synagogue Midrasho Shel Shem, a haven for transplanted French- and Hebrew-speaking Jews residing in Los Angeles. Interestingly, many immigrants of North African heritage were able to connect to their Judaism by first embracing their cultural roots through the Midrasho. From the backyard synagogue’s 17th century Moroccan interior design to the rav’s penchant for wearing the traditional tarboush (fez) and jelaba (North African robe), Rabbi Miller stood out, recalling for many, a less complicated era of their recent ancestors’ generation.
Rabbi Miller’s broad appeal in the Los Angeles Sephardic and Mizrahic communities went well beyond the exotic outer appearance. As a university-trained cultural anthropologist, French intellectual, linguist and ordained Orthodox rabbi, he was also an expert sofer whose approach to Judaism blended the mystical with the philosophical.
Rabbi Miller was always authoritative and authentic, whether teaching mystical chanting and recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) accompanied by traditional instruments or lecturing in French, English, Spanish, Arabic or Hebrew. Among the rare men of his generation to unabashedly espouse Judeo-Oriental modes of dress, architecture and pronunciation, Rabbi Miller’s daring and nostalgic embrace of a lost world taught uncounted Westernized Sephardic Jews to appreciate their ancestors’ often-downplayed history.
In L.A.’s Orthodox community, Rabbi Miller stood virtually alone in fusing Jewish-Sufi mysticism with a love of Jewish law and philosophy. He was inspired by the mystic Rabbi Avraham, son of the 13th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, whom he considered his teacher and spiritual master.
This beloved teacher’s inspiring and original presence will be greatly missed by all his students the world over. One of the great lights of Sephardic Judaism in Los Angeles has gone out, but his memory will continue to ignite the hearts and minds of those he has touched.