Sephardic leader leaves legacy of new congregations

In the Moroccan Jewish community, those who don't have children start synagogues.

That is the legacy of Moroccan-born Jewish community leader Jacob Benhaim. He died last Oct. 19 in Los Altos at age 83, leaving behind wife Lisa, no children, many nieces and nephews and several congregations.

Most recently, Benhaim was a founder of Rambam Sephardic Congregation in Palo Alto. In 1994, the group began weekly meetings at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center and had trouble attracting even a minyan. Now, there are 25 member families, and hundreds came out for High Holy Days services.

Benhaim was also a founding member of Magain David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Md., near his longtime residence in Washington, D.C., and was a member of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.

Friends say JAC Electric Supply, the Palo Alto shop Benhaim owned, became an informal local meeting place for Jews.

"He was well known in the Sephardic community," says Bill Keating, founding board member of Rambam. "People went to him with family problems, money problems, and he would step in and you'd never hear a word from him about it. He was quiet and effective — a doer of mitzvot in the best way."

Benhaim came from a family of prestigious rabbis and Jewish scholars. His father, David Benhaim, was the leader of the Jewish community in Marrakech. Shalom Onn, a software executive and current spiritual leader of Rambam, remembers the Benhaim family from his boyhood in Morocco.

"His father had the biggest Jewish library in town," says Onn. "All the students went there."

Though he remembered the family from Marrakech, Onn first met Benhaim in person at the Palo Alto Minyan a decade ago. The two realized they shared a common Moroccan heritage and became friends and associates at Rambam. According to Onn, while Benhaim didn't join the rabbinate like so many of his ancestors, he loved learning and discussion.

"People would ask his advice and he would talk politics, talk about the current situation. He would talk about the Hebrew language, roots of words, the correct way to read Hebrew. He grew up among learned people," recalls Onn.

When he came to this country in the 1950s, Benhaim first settled in Washington, D.C., where he worked as an electrical contractor and builder in Potomac, Md. Burial services were held at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Rockville, Md.

Contributions can be made to Hebrew Free Loan Association, 717 Market St., Suite 555, S.F., CA 94103, or to Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306.