Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D), the first Orthodox shul in West Orange, has grown tremendously since its 1974 building dedication. At that time, the shul was home to approximately 350 families, one of the largest Orthodox shuls in New Jersey.
With the shul continuing to grow and thrive, Rabbi Alvin Marcus, the shul’s mara d’atra, proposed the establishment of a Sephardic minyan to the shul board, in an effort to encourage the Sephardic members of the congregation to keep their traditions alive. The minyan was officially recognized in 1982. The Sephardic minyan “created a setting where rituals and traditions could be practiced, and where children could learn about their heritage,” according to the shul’s jubilee year journal.
“It was Rabbi Marcus who pushed us to start the minyan,” shared Yaakov Moradi, a member of the Sephardic shul who moved to the community in 1980. “I went to the Ashkenazi minyan when we moved in, but Rabbi Marcus said, ‘Go make a minyan in your tradition.’”
At its inception, the Sephardic minyan comprised 20-25 families, whose members hailed from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, India and Israel. These families wanted to maintain their unique customs and rituals while finding common ground in order to create a minyan.
“We met in one of the classrooms upstairs,” said Moradi. “It started with once a month, twice a month. Later we met in the youth lounge. We follow Minhag Yerushalmi.”
Albert Jacob, z”l helped found the Sephardic minyan, and confidently stated that “one day we will build a wing.” He and his sons Simon and Michael were pivotal members of the minyan from the start. Thanks to Jacob’s tireless devotion, commitment and leadership, along with a group of committed families, the Sephardic Wing in AABJ&D became a reality. As the shul website notes: “A separate Sephardic synagogue wing with its own entrance was incorporated into the second shul building expansion, completed in 1993.”
“Al Jacob joined us a few years later and it is because of him that we have the location we are still in today,” noted Moradi.
As the children in the minyan approached bar and bat mitzvah age, the members “started bringing in young men from different communities to help with the Torah reading,” said Moradi. “Then we brought in chazanim to lead the High Holiday services, which led to hiring Rabbi Michael Kakon, who came every Shabbat and was hosted in people’s homes, for about 10 years. Then Rabbi Avraham Betesh was hired, followed by Rabbi Guy Dvir and, most recently, Rabbi Yosef Sharbat, a YU graduate.
“Since the beginning we have grown quite a bit,” he continued. The shul now has [more than] 40 families and is growing every year. We are happy to have new families continuing to join us.”
Rabbi Sharbat has been with the shul for nearly a decade. He is also a rebbe and the coordinator of Sephardic studies at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, where he teaches Tanach and halacha. His wife, Batya, also teaches Tanach at the school, where she is the director of interdisciplinary studies. They and their four children reside in West Orange.
He spoke with The Jewish Link about the shul and what it brings to the community: “There is a lot of interest in the community, and the Sephardic shul is known for its warmth and inclusiveness. Everyone knows that they matter and we all feel part of a big family. We have daily minyanim, weekly shiurim and many events showcasing our beit knesset, and [we] take pride in being a melting pot of Sephardic traditions. I invite anyone to join our community for Shabbat and witness for yourself the magic of our beit knesset.
“The Sephardic community is built on the notion of achdut, unity, and [we] cherish our relationship with the other minyanim at Congregation AABJ&D,” Rabbi Sharbat added.
“Rabbi Sharbat is just wonderful,” said Moradi. “He has great relationships on both sides of the aisle, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. He gives many shiurim that a lot of people join, from all backgrounds.”
Expansion and beautification of the shul was done with the help of the Sephardic shul members, who donated their time and resources to these efforts. Members donated the Sephardic Torah case, Aron Kodesh, ner tamid, glass yad, bookcases, stained-glass windows and more.
As the 40th anniversary of its founding approaches, the shul has planned a series of celebratory events to mark the occasion. The kickoff event was a Sephardic shabbaton, held on Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach, which included a gala dinner held in the shul for more than 250 people.
“The Friday night dinner was very, very successful,” noted Moradi. “The whole community joined us.”
There has already been one guest speaker, and there are more planned as part of the year-long celebration. According to longtime resident Sally Malech, daughter of Al Jacob, there are plans for “multiple events throughout the year to mark the 40 years of the minyan and 30 years of having our beautiful synagogue.”
One of the significant aspects of the Sephardic shul is that its members and the Ashkenazi members of AABJ&D coexist harmoniously. In fact, the Ashkenazi congregants were instrumental in the temporary acquisition of a sefer Torah when the minyan was first established, and they helped make the Sephardic minyan in those early years. Currently, Rabbi Sharbat and Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, mara d’atra of AABJ&D, strive to work together for the betterment of the West Orange Jewish community as a whole.
“Because we’re attached to an Ashkenazic shul we have the best of both worlds,” said Moradi.
“This special moment is an opportunity to reflect on the growth and success of our Sephardic minyan over the past four decades,” said Rabbi Zwickler. “It is a moment for celebrating the rich traditions of the past and the continued flourishing of the minyan and our Separdic community under the exceptional and dynamic leadership of Rabbi and Rabbanit Sharbat. It is a moment of great pride for our community.”
“The credit for the shul goes to Rabbi Marcus,” noted Moradi. “He was instrumental, constantly pushing us to have our own minyan so we wouldn’t lose our minhagim.”
Malech agreed, noting, “I think it is important to recognize Rabbi Marcus for having the vision to encourage the formation of the Sephardic minyan. He recognized the differences and celebrated the Sephardic traditions within the community, and encouraged its growth within the synagogue.
“Our father chose to build the Sephardic wing within AABJ&D as he believed in Rabbi Marcus’ vision of wanting to build the community, not separate it by leaving AABJ&D,” Malech added. “He felt all the community should be under one roof.”
For information about the Sephardic community in West Orange, please contact Rabbi Yosef Sharbat at [email protected].