Rabbi Mosheh Aziz ’17R Brings Passion for Sephardic Heritage and Customs to the Community
Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the Yeshiva University community will celebrate the ordination of more than 130 musmachim [ordained rabbis] at its Chag HaSemikhah Convocation on March 19, 2017. While most will remain engaged in either full-time post-semicha Torah study or religious work—Jewish education, the pulpit, outreach or non-profit work—many will pursue careers in other professions, including medicine and law.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration, YU News will introduce you to several of these remarkable musmachim.
For as long as he can remember, learning and teaching Torah has been a passion for Mosheh Aziz. As a Mashadi Jew growing up in Great Neck, New York, he served as gabbai in his shul’s youth minyan and was already developing Torah programming for other children while still in high school himself. So when Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim, Sephardic Rosh Yeshiva and Maxwell R. Maybaum Chair in Talmud and Sephardic Halakhic Codes, encouraged Aziz to pursue semicha at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in addition to his studies in the Sephardic Community Program at Yeshiva College, the decision felt like the natural next step.
“I understood that having the solid background and training of semicha would enable me to transmit Torah more effectively and skillfully,” said Aziz. “I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to practice as a full-time rabbi, but was excited at the opportunity to take on the challenge of more rigorous Torah study with Rav Ben Haim.”
The personal connection he went on to develop with Rabbi Ben Haim during his years at RIETS has become one of Aziz’s most cherished experiences and plays a crucial role in informing his own journey as a Sephardic rabbi. “It has been the greatest privilege to learn and do shimush [rabbinical apprenticeship] under my mentor,” said Aziz. “Having received his tradition from greatest Sephardic luminaries of the previous generation, his sheer mastery of Talmud and halacha continues to be awe-inspiring. Rav Ben Haim truly embodies the principles he teaches his students and the path he expects them to follow. There were many students in the shiur who came from diverse Sephardic backgrounds—Persian, Syrian, Moroccan, and many others—and everyone felt respected and like an integral part of the shiur.”
In particular, Aziz feels he benefited from Rabbi Ben Haim’s unwaveringly high standards. “I always enjoyed the challenge of being expected to know the primary halachic sources in every sugya [Talmudic discussion] as well as where to find them inside,” he said. “If we forgot something which the Rav taught us already, he would sharply rebuke us. The demand was daunting at first; but in this way, Rav Ben Haim instilled in us the seriousness of knowing the Torah we learned.”
But Aziz also enjoyed the opportunity to develop close relationships with a wide range of roshei yeshiva at RIETS and their diverse approaches to halacha and hashkafa [philosophy], as well as the comprehensive training that has prepared him for the role he now serves as rabbinic assistant at the United Mashadi Jewish Community of America (UMJCA) under Rabbi Ben Haim.
“RIETS provides valuable training to prepare a future rabbi with the professional skills needed to excel in the contemporary world,” said Aziz. “The public speaking and drasha [homiletics] workshops gave us necessary tools to develop and deliver effective sermons. The pastoral counseling courses helped us acquire the competencies to identify social needs in the modern-day American Jewish community, and provide pastoral care sensitively and responsibly. The professional track also allowed us to meet some of the most effective people in our field who can help us when we need extra support.”
He added, “YU and RIETS are the heart and center of the American Orthodox Jewish community, and the ability to meet some of the major players in the community as well as many of my future colleagues in the rabbinate has been very valuable.”
As rabbinic assistant at UMJCA, Aziz now manages a minyan of nearly 250 singles and couples on Shabbat, in addition to teaching chatan and kallah classes with his wife, Gabby, for engaged couples in the community and Judaic studies at the Long Island Hebrew Academy in Great Neck; the couple have two daughters, Rivqa and Avigayil. Aziz has also sought to train himself in a wide range of counseling and communal skills, earning a master’s degree in social work through Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Clergy Program and completing a certificate in Jewish Communal Service at the school as well. In addition, he has been certified by the PUAH Institute and is training to become a shochet under the guidance of Rabbi Chaim Loike of the Orthodox Union.
That’s because for Aziz, knowledge and action must go hand-in-hand. “I believe it is especially important to learn and educate our communities in halacha lema’aseh, practical halacha,” he said. “Rav Ovadia Yosef z”l began his career by teaching halacha lema’aseh in the local communities and Rav Ben Haim has always advised us to teach the subject in a clear and coherent fashion.”
The topic is so important to Aziz that he and his chavruta [learning partner] are close to completing a sefer [book] in the field, a practical and concise guide to the laws of mourning according to Sephardic and Mashadi custom based on the teachings of Rabbi Ben Haim, to be published this summer. “This will hopefully be the first of a series of halacha lema’aseh sefarim we will publish based on the teachings of our mentor and teacher,” said Aziz.
As a communal rabbi, though, Aziz is especially passionate about conveying Sephardic tradition and culture to future generations. “The Sephardic community has a rich heritage—diverse communities always remained together and never branched off,” he said. “I hope to continue educating Sephardic communities about our heritage and help maintain unity and respect between all Jews. Sephardic communities have a tremendous amount to be proud of, with family and community values which are well worth maintaining and exemplifying.”