The congregation of Kehillat Sfarad is the only Sephardic congregation in Pittsburgh. Abraham Anouchi founded Kehillat Sfarad about 30 years ago, but the congregation has only recently obtained a Torah. This torah came from another synagogue, Beth Israel in Latrobe, as Beth Israel was shutting down. The Torah is still undergoing repairs and not yet in use. The story of this Torah lends insight into the diversity of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, as well as the decline of the Jewish communities that used to thrive in small towns just outside the Pittsburgh area.
The History of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews
Kehillat Sfarad is a congregation that conducts prayers according to Sephardic and Mizrahi liturgical traditions. While the Sephardic community in America includes people of both Sephardic and Mizrahi backgrounds, these are two historically distinct groups of Jews. In contrast to Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors come from Spain, Mizrahi Jews trace their ancestry to Jewish communities from the Middle East.
Sephardic Jews, or Sephardim, are the descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively. Before this expulsion, Spanish Jews enjoyed a good deal of religious tolerance under the Almoravids and the Muslim caliphates in Al-Andalus. During this “Golden Age”, Spanish Jewry were considered “people of the book” and were tolerated under Islamic rule. This acceptance and tolerance ended when the Muslim Almohad caliphate rose to power and restricted religious freedom of Jews and Christians. Eventually Christian forces were able to defeat the Almohad caliphate, but Jewish life in Spain remained unsettled. The new Christian rulership persecuted their Jewish subjects throughout the late 14th century, which lead many Jews to insincerely convert to Christianity in order to remain safe. The Spanish Christians disliked the fraudulent “new” Christians and in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued the Alhambra decree. This decree expelled all practicing Jews from Spain. If any Jew chose to stay in Spain without converting, the punishment was execution. Initially, some Jews chose to relocate to Portugal, but Portugal quickly chose to also expel its Jewish population. Overall, while some Jews chose to convert, most chose to leave Spain. Most of them migrated to the Middle East and North Africa, joining groups of Mizrahi Jews who were already there.
In contrast to Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews are originally descended from the Middle East, not Spain. Furthermore, Mizrahi Jews trace their ancestries to diverse Jewish communities in Tunisia, Turkey, Persia, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, Egypt and Yemen, and each community has its own distinct histories and customs. When Sephardic Jews migrated to areas in the Middle East and North Africa, they assimilated with the Mizrahim who had been in those areas for centuries.
While Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions are often very similar, there are still some distinct differences in their practice. Today many people – particularly in the United States — classify all non-Ashkenazic Jews as Sephardic because of the historic similarities between these two communities of Jews.
Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in America
Although most Jews in the United States are Ashkenazic, meaning that they trace their ancestry to Central or Eastern Europe, Sephardic Jews were the first Jews to immigrate to the US. While most Sephardic Jews migrated to middle-eastern countries after their expulsion from Spain, or even converted to Christianity in order to stay in Spain, some made the journey to colonial America.
Once in North America, most Sephardic Jews settled in colonial ports as merchants. These included the cities of Newport, RI, New Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. There, they began building synagogues in their own particular fashion. Even when Ashkenazic Jews began to outnumber Sephardic Jews in America in 1730, most synagogues still followed Sephardic traditions and rituals.
By the 19th century, synagogues following Ashkenazic rites had eclipsed those that follow Sephardic liturgy. However some of those older synagogues still remain, and new synagogues following Sephardic and Mizrahi rites have appeared on the American scene as well.
History of Kehillat Sfarad in Pittsburgh
Kehillat Sfarad is a small Jewish Sephardic congregation in Pittsburgh that was founded in 1986. The population of this congregation is made up of Jews of Portuguese, Spanish, Middle Eastern, and North African descent. Since its creation, Kehillat Sfarad has been offering the small population of Sephardic Jews in Pittsburgh a place to celebrate and pray during the high holidays. The founder and president of this congregation is Abraham Anouchi who also belongs to Young People’s Synagogue. Abraham Anouchi was born in Israel with his four siblings. His first paternal ancestor who immigrated from Oran in Algeria arrived in Jaffa between 1795 and 1800. Anouchi’s maternal great-grandparents immigrated from Morocco. As a young child, Anouchi attended a Sephardic synagogue and was a part of the boys choir. He greatly enjoyed the sephardic melodies that were sung in services, especially during the high holidays.
Kehillat Sfarad does not have its own building, as the congregation is still very small. The congregation serves about 40 families during the high holidays, and they rent their prayer space in synagogues such as Congregation Poale Zedeck. In the past, Kehillat Sfarad also held Shabbat services every other week with about 10 to 20 people, but they cancelled them due to dwindling interest.
At Poale Zedeck, Kehillat Sfarad was able to borrow Torahs for the high holidays, but Anouchi had always been interested in having the congregation obtain their own Torah. In order to avoid the high costs of commissioning a new torah, Anouchi began to search for alternative avenues for finding a torah for his small Sephardic congregation. Anouchi’s search led him to synagogues in the Pittsburgh area that were closing down due to declining jewish populations. He reached out to Mickey Radman, president of Beth Israel, a synagogue in Latrobe that was closing down in 2015 due to decreasing membership. Radman and the Beth Israel board eventually decided to donate their torah to Kehillat Sfarad in exchange for a $3000 fee. The torah has since undergone repairs in order to ready it for high holiday services.
The addition of the Torah will allow Kehillat Sfarad to fully practice within a Sephardic tradition. In contrast to Ashkenazic congregations, Kehillat Sfarad follows sephardic traditions that include reading each prayer aloud by the entire congregation during the service. Furthermore, Sephardim raise the torah before it is read as opposed to Ashkenazim who raise it after. Most importantly, the sephardic torah itself is different in its appearance and script.
Overall, not much is known about the history of the Torah before it was purchased by Beth Israel Latrobe in 1907. Radman heard that the torah was created in Egypt and then traveled throughout Poland before being brought to the United States, although there is no documentation of this.
History of Beth Israel Latrobe
At the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish population of Latrobe, PA grew to the point where they could form a new congregation. The new congregation, which they called Beth Israel, began meeting informally in 1898 and in 1906 became formally chartered with 21 official members. Within the year, congregants were able to purchase a small piece of land upon which to build their new synagogue.
Over time, the congregation needed a larger synagogue; they wanted more space for social and religious gatherings. By November of 1955, their hopes were fulfilled, and the congregation had moved to a larger synagogue building. At the same time, they made the decision to join the Conservative movement.
The 1950s were a busy time for Congregation Beth Israel. The National Council of Jewish Women at Beth Israel formed a religious school. The congregation also had a very active Sisterhood, fundraising efforts, and community events. For example, in order to commemorate their fiftieth anniversary, the Beth Israel Congregation hosted a reunion weekend for past members to return to and celebrate the community. Overall, Jewish Latrobe residents were integrated into the greater Jewish communities nearby and participated in the wider activities of Pittsburgh Jewry.
While the Beth Israel Congregation thrived in many respects, they also had their struggles. For starters, they did not have an official rabbi. Instead, rabbis from nearby synagogues would come to preach weekly. When High Holidays came around, they would sometimes hire a student or traveling rabbi. Though a congregation without a rabbi was not common, it was also not unheard of. Communities in similar positions also frequently turned to rabbis of the surrounding area.
By the 1960s, membership and overall attendance began to decline at Congregation Beth Israel. This decline mirrored the decreasing Jewish presence in Latrobe; many young residents were moving away for college or other careers, especially into the city of Pittsburgh, PA, and did not return back to the community in which they were raised.
It took many years and their leaders fought earnestly, but by 2015, the members of Congregation Beth Israel finally admitted they could no longer continue. Members began searching for places and organizations to send funds generated from selling congressional assets, plaques, and torah scrolls. While some of their scrolls made it to the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach, NJ, one scroll was purchased by the members of Pittsburgh’s Kehillat Sfarad.
Though the Beth Israel Congregation of Latrobe did come to end, they left a lasting impression on their surrounding community as well as the Jewish communities they supplied with their final belongings – especially those lucky enough to receive their treasured torah scrolls.
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