I am not sure why I thought I was going to be attending a typical shul dinner, albeit a little different as our Highland Park community was saying “thank you and goodbye” to our beloved rabbi of 29 years, Rabbi David Bassous, and his family as they prepare for their aliyah to Israel.
I simply didn’t realize the myriad of feelings I was going to experience throughout the evening of mingling, speeches and memories. Feelings of intense gratitude. Feelings of remorse for not taking advantage of what we had while we had it. Feelings of fear regarding what the next speech on the High Holy Days will be like and will it properly bring me into the next tefilah?
Who will be wise and humble enough to stay out of town politics and focus on bringing the holiest and most Sephardic experience possible to our sweet shul on Denison Street?
Who will I go to with my questions at all hours of the day and night?
Who will say Shabbat shalom to me so warmly, as if I was someone so special, when I finally show up at shul after a three-month hiatus?
And who will figure out how to bridge the many generations and cultures of our shul into one unified and warm weekly kiddush? That takes serious talent.
During the dinner, memories coursed through me: Of those who are no longer there but built our synagogue. The card players. My grandfather’s time. The men who cared. The sisterhood that made bourekas in the shul kitchen. The next generation who came, with as much fervor and passion as their fathers. That was my father’s generation. He regrouped the children in public school to come back. To care. And to remember their Sephardic roots. Most of their children weren’t able to retain the traditions because times were different then. A few families marched on and we kept one foot in front of the other because our Sephardic shul, was…well…Sephardic, after all. Rabbi and Rabbanit Bassous walked in and simply revived our culture, our Shabbat, our Torah classes and our hearts.
And all of a sudden, we were back on the map. It was no longer just OT, OE, AA…but also the shul without the acronym and with much longer services: that Sephardic shul on Denison Street, Congregation Etz Ahaim. Yes, just like Cheers, it was the synagogue where everybody knew your name. It didn’t matter if you were Sephardic, Ashkenaz, Torah observant or new to the fold; if you walked in, you were greeted warmly, with a smile, a handshake and an aliyah.
The years have passed and members have come and gone, many moved to Israel and many have stayed. But our shul remains, buoyed by our rabbi, rebbetzin and devoted membership.
When I walked around the room, I felt a special connection to everyone I spoke with and was amazed at how each individual was so very special, so very wise and had so much to offer. These are the types of people that Rabbi Bassous drew to our shul. Special, warm, loving people who are unique and sincere. Though these days I only look from afar and don’t participate as much, anyone can see the devotion they have put into making our shul, grow, flourish and stay beautiful. We are still Ladino strong in our prayers. De Sola Pool prayer book is still my favorite siddur, and I will never know another rabbi who answers texts so quickly with such logical and trustworthy answers.
If I may repeat the words of Rabbanit Bassous from a number of years ago, when she was on a rebbetzin panel in Highland Park on how to raise children. Her words stayed with me and so many other women who have repeated her wise words to me over the years: “Laugh with your children because they need to smile and need your warmth. Love them because you can never love too much. And listen. Listen to them. Just listen. They need your attention.” Invaluable lessons not to be forgotten and to be used day in and day out when interacting with our precious children.
I’m so grateful that I was able to attend the dinner, that my parents raised me with their heritage and roots, no matter if I was the only girl in my eighth grade class who had seudah shlishit while the other girls all had shaleshudes, and that I am able to be a part of such a special community that was led by such a brilliant rabbi whose weekly parsha speeches were filled with life lessons, if you were there to listen and ready to absorb.
Wow. We were so privileged. Thank you.
By Vicky Cittone Krief