SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY OF GREATER BOSTON
The Sephardim, the first Jewish community to reach America in 1492 together with Christopher Columbus, have been living in Boston for over 350 years. They arrived around the same time as the city of Boston was incorporated in the year 1630. Spanish Portuguese Jews escaping the inquisition and persecution, settled throughout the English Colonies, regaining their freedom of religion, and building their homes and businesses. The first documented Jew in Boston was Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jew from Holland, who arrived in 1649.
Among the famous patriots living in Boston, was Moses Michael Hays, a Portuguese Sephardi. He and his family left Newport for Boston ahead of the British attack in 1776, at a time that Boston was devastated by the physical and financial effects of the American Revolution. For the next three decades, Moses Hays and his family would play key roles in establishing the financial and cultural institutions that would define post-Revolutionary and 19th-century Boston.
He opened a shipping office in Boston and was among the first merchants there to underwrite shipbuilding, trade and insurance to newly opened Far Eastern markets. In 1784, Hays become a founder and the first depositor of the Massachusetts Bank still doing business today as part of the Bank of America. He was an honorary member of the Boston Marine Society, and a founder of the Mass Mutual Fire Insurance Company and the Mass Marine Insurance Company.
Moses Hays was also active in a variety of civic projects. He donated to subscriptions to beautifying the Boston Common, to building bridges and turnpikes, and to Harvard College.
His son, Judah Hays, and his nephews, Abraham and Judah Touro (after whom Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the oldest synagogue in America is named) continued in his tradition. They helped establish Mass General Hospital (Abraham Touro’s portrait is on the wall, in the main lobby), the Boston Athenaeum and the Bunker Hill Monument (The base of the Bunker Hill Monument bears an inscription honoring Judah Touro).
Besides socializing with Paul Revere and Harrison Gray Otis, these Sephardic families were sincere to their Jewish roots. Their businesses were closed on Shabbat, kosher meat was being delivered from Newport, regular prayer services were being held at their homes, and their household library contained dozens of Hebrew books.
However, with all prosperity, the early Boston Sephardic Jews were considered alien-residents. No Jewish houses of worship were allowed in Boston. Furthermore, the Hayes, Touro, Lopez and many other Boston Sephardic families had to bury their deceased in Newport, since there were no Jewish cemeteries allowed at that time. Hence, they were all tied to New York and Newport’s Spanish Portuguese congregations, where they donated regularly and were members. Not until the Massachusetts Constitutional Amendments of 1821, were the Jews granted full rights of citizenship, shortly before a group of Sephardic Algerian Jews arrived in Boston in 1830.
In 1840, the Sephardic Jews in Boston were joined by the Ashkenazim, who had just arrived from Germany, settling at first in the old South End, just South of Boston Common. German immigrants began immediately to establish the traditional institutions that characterized Jewish communities around the world, now that they were permitted in Boston. In 1842, the first Jewish congregation in Boston, calling itself Ohabei Shalom (Lovers of Peace) was formed. Their first synagogue dedicated in 1852 was strictly orthodox. It housed a Mikveh (ritual bath) and a Talmud Torah for children. Two years later, Ohabei Shalom established the first Jewish cemetery in the city. Finally, after two centuries, Boston Jews no longer had to be buried in Newport or New York City. Judah Touro included in his will a large donation to Ohabei Shalom before his death in 1854.
As Ohabei Shalom and it’s break-away, Adath Israel (today Temple Israel), eventually both became Reform Temples, the Sephardic Jews, keeping strictly to their traditional lifestyles, joined and identified with the more religious congregations, and prayed in their synagogues.
In the 1870’s through the turn of the century, there was a group of primarily North African Sephardim, who held Sephardic services in Zion’s Holy Prophets of Israel (The Alfred A. Marcus Orthodox Synagogue) in Boston’s South End. They were using a Torah Scroll dedicated by the famous Sephardic philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. As the Jewish community started to migrate to the suburbs of Roxbury, Dorchester & Mattapan, so did the Sephardim. They continued praying in the synagogues on Blue Hill Ave.
Mattapan is where the history of our Sephardic Community in Brighton began. Many Sephardic Jews were fleeing Egypt, after the rise of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, who subsequently expelled all the Jews and confiscated all their property. After the transition from Egypt, usually through France, where they waited a few years to receive their visas, they arrived in the USA. Approximately sixty families settled in Boston, by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Hacham Elie Setton, born in Aleppo, Syria, was a Torah scholar and merchant in Alexandria, Egypt. He arrived in Boston in1963, and organized the first prayer services on Yom Kippur of that year. Together with his father-in-law, R’ Eliyahu Hamaoui, and his brother-in-law, the noted Hazzan of the Great Synagogue of Cairo, Shaoul (Charles) Hamaoui and his brother-in-law, Mr. Albert Habif (later elected treasurer of SCGB), they acquired space from Rabbi Moshe Gurkow, in his newly formed Shaloh House Hebrew Day School in Mattapan, and conducted the Yom Kippur services.
That year, in attendance, there were only three families with just nine men/boys that could be counted for the minyan. They invited an Ashkenazi friend to complete the minyan. The next year, as many more families arrived in Boston, they had dozens of people at the High Holiday services. Eventually, other Sephardim living in Boston from other countries of origin, (such as the Cohen families from Greece) found their home with this Syrian-Egyptian group. Hacham Setton became the spiritual leader of the entire Sephardic community, and together with the Hazzan, Shaoul Hamaoui, they lead the services, and began a new chapter in the lives of Boston’s Sephardic Jews.
In 1965, due to the deteriorating Jewish situation in Mattapan, the Sephardic community needed to move again. Many of them settled in Brookline, around Coolidge Corner. The High Holiday Sephardic services were conducted in the Social Hall of the Southern House, on Beacon Street.
The community kept on growing in Brookline, as still many more Egyptian families were arriving, and many other local Sephardim, by now, had heard of the Sephardic services, and hundreds came to join. Eventually, the High Holiday services were moved to the Chateau Garod Wedding Hall on Beacon St. Year after year, following the High Holiday services, the community yearned that one day they should merit to have a synagogue of their own.
In 1977, under the leadership of Dr. Charles Sasson, the Sephardic Community of Greater Boston filed the legal papers, becoming incorporated as a non-profit organization in the State of Mass.
In 1979, under the leadership of Dr. Charles Naggar & Dr. Martin Hanopole, together with Rabbi Ezra Labaton & Dr. Baruch Mazor, the High Holiday services were extended to Shabbat services too, meeting every week in the Beit Midrash of Young Israel of Brookline.
In 1983, under the leadership of Mr. Clement (Rahmin) Kodsi, the community accepted our beloved Rabbi Aaron Hamaoui, who eventually succeeded his uncle and father, as Rabbi and Hazzan of the community. Rabbi Hamaoui instituted the daily minyan and many Torah classes, which continue till this day. Over the years, the Rabbi has reached out and has made a major impact on hundreds of Jewish families and international college students studying in Boston.
On Yom Kippur 1988, under the leadership of Mr. Moshe Rahmani & Mr. Edmond Shamsi, a successful campaign was launched to finally build our own synagogue. Major contributions were received from the Shamsi and Zafarani families, and also from the Cochab, Elmaleh, Feuerstein, Gabbay, Kodsi, Naggar & Sitt families. Also, among those who donated generously were the Aghion, Ariel, Bauer, Foonberg, Habif, Hassan, Lester, Mayo, Mosseri, Sabetfard, Sanieoff & Schinazi families.
In 1989, the community inaugurated their first synagogue building, Kol Sasson Bnei Shaoul, at our present location, on Corey Road in Brighton. Hence, after three and a half centuries, the Sephardim finally had their first Sephardic synagogue building in the city of Boston.
For over a quarter of a century, this synagogue building has not only served the needs of the Sephardic community, it has also homed and been instrumental in founding many other important institutions of Jewish Boston, such as the Kollel of Greater Boston, Bais Yaakov Girls High School, Ohr Yisrael Yeshiva High School, and others.
In 2008, shortly after a major renovation and completion of the Abraham Picciotto Beit Midrash, several dynamic young professionals reached out to form the New Ashkenaz Minyan (NAM). This Minyan, which is integral to the Sephardic Congregation of Greater Boston, started in October 2008 and has ever since attracting many young adults, families and students. It is a very popular destination for newcomers to Boston.
Fifty years after its founding, although the services and traditions of the synagogue continue in the Syrian-Egyptian style, the Corey Road synagogue is a landmark, which brings together Jews from all walks of life, spanning all the different countries of origin. European Sephardim, North African Sephardim, Middle Eastern Sephardim, Asian Sephardim, and Ashkenazim from all over the world, are all united to form what is today the Sephardic Community of Greater Boston