Half a Century Later, Sephardic Studies Continue to Expand at Yeshiva University
A program at Yeshiva University that began with a handful of participants will soon mark its 50th year, and it has never been stronger.
The Sephardic Studies Program at YU, co-founded by Dr. Herbert C. Dobrinsky, YU vice president of university affairs, started out with just seven students in 1964 and has steadily flourished and expanded over the last five decades. Today, the Sephardic Community Program (SCP) boasts more than 300 undergraduate men and women and serves an additional 100 graduate students, including a dozen rabbinical students.
At the time, “we didn’t feel satisfied that the Sephardic students who came to YU left with the necessary skills and didn’t benefit to the maximum in terms of learning about their own traditions,” said Dobrinsky.
That is no longer the case.
“The Sephardic world is multi-faceted and YU is the only place in North America that has such diversity of Sephardic students and makes a concerted effort to educate them in both secular and Jewish studies, while giving special appreciation to their Sephardic heritage,” said Rabbi Moshe Tessone, the program’s director since 2001 and a faculty member at YU and its Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music. “This began with Dr. Dobrinsky’s vision nearly a half century ago and now we have an opportunity to do better than we’ve ever done before.”
Over the last few years, demographics have evolved, with a dramatic increase in the number of Sephardic students attending Orthodox day schools that serve as primary feeders to YU.
“The synergies are potentially explosive as the number of Sephardic students at YU grows,” said Rabbi Tessone. “There was a sense that these incoming Sephardic students needed to feel as if they had a home at YU, where they would able to grow not just academically, but also on a religious, cultural and spiritual level. We want to attract them to YU—students who we train to become future leaders of the Sephardic world—and give them the feeling that they could have a great experience here at Yeshiva.”
To augment these efforts, Rabbi Simon Basalely was recently appointed as the Edmond J. Safra Sgan Mashgiach for the Sephardic campus community at YU, a newly established position. He serves as a role model and mentor for students, running minyanim in the Sephardic Beit Midrash and coordinating Shabbat events, Torah lectures and other programs that enhance and lend warmth to the religious and cultural environment of the Sephardic community.
“I feel privileged to work with a group of such wonderful, energetic students, aspiring to learn and to take advantage of the opportunities to further connect with their heritage,” said Rabbi Basalely, a graduate of Yeshiva College, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theology Seminary and the Beren Kollel Elyon. “We are planning an on campus Shabbaton for students to spend Shabbat together enjoying Sephardic foods and singing Sephardic pizmonim [traditional songs] immersed in the Sephardic liturgical tradition while, at the same time, spending Shabbat in their Yeshiva.”
Rabbi Basalely is already making a positive impact in his new role.
“Rabbi Basalely is the person who students can turn to after classroom hours, to help give them spiritual and religious guidance, that they need beyond academics,” said Rabbi Tessone said. “He is there for students in the capacity of a campus rabbi to provide hashgacha ruchanit [spiritual guidance] on an ongoing basis. Our goal is to make the Sephardic Beit Midrash a warm spiritual haven right here on campus.”
For Charles Saka, a sophomore at the Sy Syms School of Business majoring in business management, some highlights of the SCP include the weekly Sephardic pizmonim club and his daily shiur with Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim, Sephardic Rosh Yeshiva Chairholder of the Maxwell R. Maybaum Chair in Talmud and Sephardic Halakhic Codes.
“Rabbi Tessone has elevated the Sephardic life on campus with his weekly course in Sephardic hazzanut,” said Saka. “Rabbi Basalely has also been a great source of daily inspiration and spirituality with our minyanim and his divrei Torah and nightly shiurim in the Sephardic Bet Midrash.”
Last July, the SCP also celebrated the dedication of a new Torah scroll, donated by a great uncle of Rabbi Basalely, Benjamin M. Aminoff, in memory of his nephew, Sam Aminoff, to be used in the Sephardic Beit Midrash. “This dedication was especially meaningful, because Rabbi Basalely is closely related to the Aminoff family and now he has the unique opportunity to oversee the religious growth that would be reaped from the frequent use of this Sefer Torah,” said Rabbi Tessone.
On November 24, YU’s Center for the Jewish Future and Abraham Arbesfeld Kollel Yom Rishon and Millie Arbesfeld Midreshet Yom Rishon presented a tribute event dedicated to the legacy of HaRav Ovadia Yosef zt”l, which featured special remarks by Rav Yosef’s daughter, Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, founder and chief executive officer of the Haredi College of Jerusalem.