At 10 years, Sephardi minyan hires first full-time rabbi

Rabbi Menasha Louk just moved to Silicon Valley in early March. Already, he's got a schedule that would exhaust the CEO of many a start-up company.

Most days, he's up at 6 a.m. for morning services as spiritual leader of Bar Yohai Sephardic Minyan in Sunnyvale. Louk, who is Bar Yohai's first full-time rabbi, then starts working on an array of plans for the 40-household congregation.

He's back to shul in the evenings for services and the twice-weekly Talmud class the he started during his first week on the job. He plans to add more classes on the remaining nights of the week.

Members of the minyan "told me, 'Perhaps you want one day off,'" relates the 27-year-old Louk. "I said, 'There's no such thing as one day off.'"

In the midst of it all, he managed to help his wife, Maital, unpack the 60 boxes that arrived when the couple and their two young children moved from New York. One of Louk's first priorities was setting up a bookcase for his talmudic and other religious texts.

For Louk, who was born in Israel and spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, acquiring spiritual knowledge and sharing it with others is well worth the time.

"There is not a greater pleasure than sitting together and discussing various issues" in a religious study session, he said. There's "a tremendous amount of wisdom invested in the Talmud. All we have to do is open the book."

His goal at Bar Yohai is to teach his congregants and strengthen their Jewish awareness. "The only way to do that is through classes," he said.

Louk is the son of Moroccan-born Haim Louk, a rabbi, cantor and world-recognized singer. Just last year, Haim Louk performed at Berkeley's Jewish Music Festival.

Menasha Louk's arrival comes as the minyan, based in the multipurpose room at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, marks its 10th anniversary. A celebration is set for Sunday evening.

Members also are working on a proposal to build a synagogue on the school site.

The minyan has come a long way since Jean-Pierre Braun and Eric Benhamou decided to set up a small prayer group at the school.

Braun, CEO of Escalade software company in Santa Clara, and Benhamou, CEO of technology giant 3Com, attended the same synagogue as teenagers in Grenoble, France. They both wanted to bring those Sephardic customs to the South Bay.

To recruit prospective members, Braun turned to the Sunnyvale phone book and began calling people with Sephardic surnames.

"Talk about cold-calling," he jokes. But it paid off: "There was an immediate need."

What resulted was a diverse group of Jews from Iran, Yemen, Morocco, Israel and elsewhere who all were living in the South Bay and mostly working in high-tech jobs.

"What we wanted to recreate was the style of community that we experienced in Europe or Israel," said Braun, the congregation's president. That style was informal and called for liberal participation from congregants.

The idea caught on. Shabbat services now regularly draw more than 100 people and several hundred come for the High Holy Days. Despite the diversity of backgrounds, "it's one big community," Braun said.

Saeed Solymani, a computer programmer from Iran and one of the founders of the minyan, estimated that more than 15 families have moved close to the congregation so they don't have to drive on Shabbat.

For the first five years, members led services on their own. Then, the growing congregation got part-time help from two rabbis who had come to the day school as shlichim (emissaries) from Israel. Each rabbi served until he had to return home.

The congregation decided in July that it needed a full-time rabbi.

In Louk, who recently completed his rabbinical training at the Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin in New York, members think they have found the Sephardic leader they sought.

"First of all, his level of energy and enthusiasm is just incredibly contagious," Braun said. Congregants also were impressed by "the extent of his knowledge and more importantly, the way he's able to communicate," Braun added.

Louk is "definitely by personality a magnet," said Avi Kopelman, an engineer from Israel who joined Bar Yohai in 1995.

For his part, Louk was attracted by "a tremendous thirst for knowledge from members of the community, wanting to know, caring to know" about Sephardic traditions, prayers and music.

But Louk also realizes that he faces a challenge as a rabbi based in a high-tech mecca.

"People are definitely committed to their work," said Louk, who is also a sofer, or scribe.

"I have to make it sweet enough for them to make them push the off button on the computer and say, 'I have to go to Bar Yohai; Rabbi Louk is giving a class.'

"To make something more interesting than the computer, you have to be a pro."