Tamar Bloch in the Beit Dakira museum, part of a JIMENA-sponsored virtual trip to Morocco.
(Screenshot/JIMENA)
Tamar Bloch in the Beit Dakira museum, part of a JIMENA-sponsored virtual trip to Morocco. (Screenshot/JIMENA)

Newly founded Sephardic Leadership Institute will elevate Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish voices 

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When Adam Eilath gives a weekly d’var Torah at Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, he always includes wisdom from the sages. In this case, very specific sages: those exclusively from Sephardic or Mizrahi backgrounds.

That’s because Eilath, who serves as Wornick’s head of school, is the son of a Tunisian mother. He knows firsthand how the contributions of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are often overlooked, and how their communities are usually underrepresented in mainstream Jewish life.

Adam Eilath
Adam Eilath

“It’s a part of who I am,” Eilath said of his North African roots. “I really believe that there are challenges we face in the Jewish community that the current reservoir of traditions, thought and history that are traditionally taught in Jewish day schools does not address. I truly believe the experiences of Middle Eastern and North African Jews have a lot to teach us.”

As part of his commitment to elevate their profile, Eilath serves on the advisory committee of the Sephardic Leadership Institute, a new national initiative from JIMENA, the S.F.-based agency that champions the heritage and history of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

According to the institute’s website, Sephardic is a term used to describe Jewish populations that “originated in the Iberian peninsula and Jewish communities which identify as operating within the framework of Sephardic law and custom,” while the term Mizrahi “emerged in Israel throughout the 20th century to refer to Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.”

The new institute aims to elevate the place of Sephardic and Mizrahi community leaders, scholars and activists into the Jewish mainstream, and provide leadership development opportunities. It also wants to create a hub of U.S. leadership, and ensure they are included in demographic and Jewish communal research.

To do all that — along with strengthening knowledge of and providing data on Jewish diversity — the institute’s leaders have drawn up an ambitious agenda.

They plan to soon launch a comprehensive demographic study to gauge the size and scope of the communities in the United States, and then bolster them with leadership training, fellowships, networking opportunities and more.

Sarah Levin
Sarah Levin

“Sephardic and Mizrahi communities are extremely diverse,” said Sarah Levin, now in her 13th year as JIMENA’s executive director and one of the key players behind the institute. “But we haven’t seen their heritage and voices incorporated into mainstream Jewish life. Our leaders haven’t been empowered, and some have experienced marginalization. The larger Jewish community has been at a disadvantage by not ensuring that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and their heritage are part of everyday Jewish life.”

The Sephardic Leadership Institute’s website makes note of the “Ashkenormativity” of the American Jewish community, and that principles of diversity, equity and inclusion demand a greater role for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

“There’s no real convener, no one bringing leaders and institutions together,” Levin said. “So this institute is an offshoot of the work JIMENA has been committed to” since its founding 20 years ago.

Levin said the institute received a generous three-year grant of $1 million from the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund.

To get started, a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a survey, which included interviews with nearly 50 rabbis, heads of schools, agency executives and other leaders to assess the needs and potential opportunities for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

“The initial data we collected articulates real experiences of marginalization,” Levin said. “What we found is that we need a full demographic study and to untangle some of the language around identity. There is no consensus even on the definition of what is a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew.”

She also noted that their cultures and traditions too often are reduced to celebrations of foods, forms of dress and music that fall prey to “exoticization.”

We haven’t seen their heritage and voices incorporated into mainstream Jewish life. Our leaders haven’t been empowered.

Levin’s roots go back to Sephardic Turkish Jews on her father’s side. Her Turkish-born great-grandparents  helped organize the Sephardic community in Chicago, and also helped with the absorption of Jewish refugees from Egypt in the 1950s. She said the Sephardic and Mizrahi cultures have so much more to offer the broader Jewish community.

“It’s not about silohood,” she said. “It’s about incorporating into the mainstream. Making something Jewish for everybody, regardless of race and ethnicity, is the goal. Not to devalue or get rid of modes of operation in the Jewish community, but broadening and enriching.”

That’s certainly Eilath’s hope. A native of Toronto, he said he did not “receive special instruction in my own cultural background,” and it wasn’t until he lived in Israel that he began to explore his North African roots.

“I’m part of this third generation of North Africa and Middle East Jews,” he said. “The first generation moved to Israel, France or America, and held onto language and tradition. The second generation tried to assimilate, and the third became curious.”

He latched onto Sephardic and Mizrahi music, piyyutim (liturgical chants), poetry and religious traditions while in Israel, and today belongs to a WhatsApp group of Jews living in Tunisia. He’s even learned to chant Torah in Tunisian trope.

Levin is happy Eilath and other leaders like him will take part in the activities of the institute. In addition to the demographic study, which will be overseen by sociologist Mijal Bitton of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Cohen Center of Brandeis University, Levin hopes the institute will publish a scholarly journal.

Between now and the end of the year, the institute will launch its first two fellowship cohorts, one composed of national Sephardic and Mizrahi community leaders, the other focused on college campus professionals. It will also continue a professional development series of virtual events open to anyone, and more information can be accessed at sephardicstudy.org.

“We have thousands of years of heritage that is being ignored,” Levin said. “We want to focus on that history and the incredible value it can add to the Jewish community.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.