Another first in Berkeley: egalitarian Sephardic services

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After 5,757 years it's hard to believe anything could be new, much less radical about the High Holy Days. But that's why there's a Berkeley.

This year at Berkeley Hillel, assistant director Yossi Hets-Ohana, along with Loolwa Khazzoom and Glenn Massarano, are putting together "traditional egalitarian Mizrahi-Sephardic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services."

This may not sound radical, but according to Khazzoom it is the first official egalitarian Mizrahi-Sephardic service sponsored by an established Jewish institution. The egalitarian part comes in because the service will be co-led by men, women, gays and lesbians.

"What we are doing is creating the first alternative," says Khazzoom. "This is an opportunity for all Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews who feel alienated from community to come and feel part of it. I think it's a great way to start off a new year."

Unlike Ashkenazic Judaism, which has Reform, Conservative and Orthodox alternatives, Mizrahi-Sephardic Judaism only comes in one flavor — Orthodox. Women are prohibited from participating in services or sitting with the men. At the San Francisco synagogue that Khazzoom attended as a child, women sat behind a wall.

Mizrahim and Sephardim are two distinct groups with separate histories, though they are often referred to collectively as Sephardic, Khazzoom says.

Those who were expelled from Spain in 1492, settling in Europe as well as Morocco, are known as Sephardim. Those who remained in the Middle East after the diaspora, or migrated to neighboring countries, are known as Mizrahi. Sephardim also immigrated to countries such as Iran, where Khazzoom's family is from, and Iraq, blending with the pre-existing Mizrahi culture.

For Khazzoom, 28, the upcoming service is the realization of a longtime dream.

"My mother told me the first thing out of my mouth was a Shabbat song," says Khazzoom. "Ever since I was a little girl I spent all Shabbat learning songs and prayers from my heritage."

As a child, she was allowed to lead part of the service. But if a boy showed up, Khazzoom was taken off the bimah and the boy was given the honor of leading, even if Khazzoom was much more familiar with the liturgy.

She celebrated her bat mitzvah at age 12.

But the ritual that was supposed to make her part of the Jewish community had the opposite effect.

"I could no longer sit with the men," remembers Khazzoom. "I was shoved in the back [of the synagogue]. I was told I couldn't sing anymore."

Khazzoom felt rejected and stopped going to her temple. She prayed at home or attended Ashkenazi services.

For her, the planned High Holy Day services represent a long-sought breakthrough. "It brings the two pieces of me together, woman and Mizrahi," says Khazzoom. "It's finally home. My voice can finally be heard in my community."

For Glenn Massarano, it's an opportunity to celebrate the holidays in a manner that is familiar.

"L.A. had a lot of Sephardic options," says Massara 37, who moved from Orange County to the East Bay with his wife and two sons four years ago. "It was important for Loolwa and me and Yossi to have something Sephardic in the community and to include everyone in the service. It's also very important to us to provide a traditional framework."

Massarano started rediscovering his Sephardic heritage about 10 years ago.

"My grandfather was from Salonika, Greece. His native language was Ladino and he taught none of it to my father."

His grandfather Americanized his name to Mell, but when Glenn got married he reclaimed his birthright, returning to the original Massarano.

Khazzoom, Massarano and Hets-Ohana plan to use a traditional Sephardic siddur (prayerbook) but will provide translations and transliterations of the prayers. Khazzoom will lead a preparation class to teach the prayers and educate people about the service.

Sephardic temples and services differ from Ashkenazi in several ways, including placement of the bimah, which is in the center of the sanctuary. The Torah is not laid flat when it is read — it stands upright in a case. The trope, prayer melodies and services also are different. According to Khazzoom, a traditional Sephardic Yom Kippur service would be unrecognizable to an Ashkenazi Jew.

For Hets-Ohana, who was born in Morocco and raised in Israel, the service continues the struggle he was undergoing before coming to Berkeley a year ago. In Israel, he says, Mizrahi-Sephardim are treated like second-class citizens and are discriminated against in many areas, particularly education and housing.

"We are marginalized in Israel and here. We would like people to think the Jews are not only of European descent but from other countries."

During the past year, Hets-Ohana sponsored a Mideast night and a Mizrahi-Sephardic Shabbat service at Berkeley Hillel. Both had large turnouts.

All three organizers hope that this year's services start a trend.

"My goal is to find a regular experience," says Massarano, "a place where I can go and be Sephardic and really rejoice in that fact. Reclaim it and rejoice in it. These are my people. This is my tradition."