17 Nov BROOKLYN SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY IS BOOMING! Q & A WITH RABBI ELI MANSOUR
Rabbi Mansour is one of the most revered leaders of the Syrian Jewish community, which has experienced astounding physical and spiritual growth over the past few decades. Rabbi Mansour is currently the head Rabbi of The Edmond J Safra Synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, where he continues to spread Torah and provide inspiration. During the summer months, he serves as the Rabbi officiating at the Ohel Yaakob (Lawrence Avenue) Synagogue in Deal, New Jersey.
Ari Hirsch of the Jewish Vues had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Mansour for a Q&A.
I recently interviewed Rabbi Auman from the Young Israel Talmud Torah of Flatbush and he told me that the only segment of Judaism that is growing in Brooklyn right now is the Syrian Sephardic Community. It appears that the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Magen David, and Ateret are all bursting at the seams. To what do you attribute that?
The Ashkenazim are moving away to Toms River, Jackson, the Five Towns and other neighborhoods. The Syrians have a community. They’re not just randomly living in the neighborhood; we have our parents living near us. So, while it might be aesthetically pleasing to live in New Jersey, we’ve built many institutions in Brooklyn and no one wants to give that up so easily. So as the Ashkenazim are moving out, the Sefardim are buying whatever is available. It’s not that other communities aren’t growing; they’re just growing in a different place.
How do you explain the Syrian community’s dramatic metamorphosis into a bastion of Torah learning? Do you have an explanation for it?
You have to know our history. The gemara says that the Torah will always return to its’ host. Go back to the old country, let’s say Aleppo in Syria; it was a city of scholars. When Maimonides visited the middle east 1000 years ago, he visited Aleppo and said “it’s a city of scholars.” The Torah was always there; there was Rashei Yeshivot, Av Beit Din, Mekubalim, there were rabbis on every level. You go to cemeteries in Hallab today and there are Tanaim buried there; Tanaim from the Mishna are buried in Syria in the Bet Hakevarot next to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo. The Sefardic heritage museum is restoring that cemetery now to make sure that all the graves are identified. So the Torah in Aleppo goes back thousands of years and we have a guarantee that the Torah will always return to its host; we were a good host. So the gemara is coming true. In America there may have been a lapse for some years, but now, Boruch Hashem, Hakadosh Baruch Hu brought Torah back. That’s the gemara’s understanding.
If you want a more rational understanding of why it’s happening, it takes time for trends to take hold. This is after a few generations of yeshiva education. Our parents and grandparents did not have a yeshiva education when they came to this country. I got a yeshiva education, my children are getting a yeshiva education, so there are 2 generations that already went through the yeshiva system. After 20-30 years we are starting to see the result of Torah education. You’re not going to see results after 1 or 2 years, it takes time for trends to change. Most of our people go to yeshiva, only a small percentage, not even a recognizable percentage, goes to public school. So whether it’s more mainstream like Magen David or Flatbush or more right wing like Ateret or Shaarei Torah, it doesn’t matter. They’re all teaching the core beliefs that we cherish: Shabbat, kashrut, all our practices that are unquestionable. We’re finally starting to see the results. Millions of dollars were spent building the yeshivot and hundreds of millions on tuition and the investment has paid off.
What would you say is the most challenging part about being a Rav in the Sephardic community?
I don’t think our challenges are unique to any Rav in America. We have a drug problem in America, so eventually that’s going to trickle down into the community. There’s internet addiction and all the Tumah that trickles down into the community. I don’t know if we necessarily have any unique issues that other rabbonim don’t. The morals are declining by the day as society gets more liberal. We have to deal with kids going to college and getting corrupted by the liberal agenda that the colleges have. They go to yeshiva for 20-years and they’re thinking differently after a few months in college. We’re facing the challenges that the larger society has and we have to make sure it doesn’t seep into our community too much.
Dealing with technology as a frum Jew. The yetzer hara is everywhere. How do we control it?
You’re not going to control the yetzer hara; that shouldn’t be the objective. The yetzer hara will always find a way to make a challenge. The only way to get rid of the yetzer hara is to study mussar and yirat shamayim on a daily basis. I don’t care if a person has all the filters in the world; if he didn’t learn mussar, he didn’t get rid of the yetzer hara. That being said, our schools have standards for every phone a kid has to be tagged. They won’t let them in the school if they’re not tagged. It’s upon the parents as well to be vigilant; it’s not just the rabbis’ jobs. My opinion is that you can’t live without it. Same way you can’t live without knives to cut your food. Is a knife dangerous? Absolutely! But I don’t think we can go to the extreme and ban it. It has to be really controlled. There are many safety features, but there are many tricks to get around it. If anyone knows how to get around it, it’s the kids. They know all the loopholes to get into what you’re not supposed to get into. You have to be vigilant. Shabbat is an automatic protection; one day a week we go without it. The idea that kids can have unlimited screen time is absurd. I can control my kids’ phones so they can only use their phone an hour a day and then it locks. We have all these things to control it now.
Do you find that most people that come to ask you shailot are looking for a therapist or are asking halacha questions?
I think they’re looking for the Rabbi to be everything. I’m not too sure the Rabbis after the Holocaust were not therapists to survivors, I’m sure they were. I’m sure they had to deal with a lot of issues and trauma that people went through. There weren’t therapists at the time so they went to the rabbi for therapy. I don’t think it changed; I think we’re doing the same thing. Not with traumas of a war, but with other traumas in the society. There are a lot of shalom bayis issues that the rabbis deal with. Halacha is definitely part of it. Teaching the Kahal is definitely part of it. Advice on life issues like which school to send their kids. Different dilemmas that come up in family. The rabbis are definitely dealing with mental health issues. But Boruch Hashem we have organizations within the community to send them to. So if I’m not qualified, I am qualified to give them a phone number to Sefardic Bikur Cholim or another organization that will professionally take on the case. We have a lot of infrastructure where we can deal with these problems that are beyond a Rabbi’s capability.
I’ve listened to many of your shiurim both live and online, and I enjoy them very much. At times I must admit that I have a hard time understanding your Sephardi Hebrew but I always enjoy them very much. I find that when you give a shiur you always make a circle. You start on one topic, go to a whole bunch of different topics, and at the end always come full circle to bring it all together. Is there a Rav that you try to follow or grew up listening to that you try to emulate?
I would have to say that a lot of that technique I got from my father. My father helped me a lot when I was younger to write my Divrei Torah and he thought that way, very methodically. He had that thought process that the beginning and end have to connect. I got that technique more from my father than anyone.
A couple of Torah questions:
1) Can a Sephardic person eat at an Ashkenaz person’s house? Sephardim have a lot more Chumras.
Assuming he can tolerate the food that we’re not used to eating, yes. The Shabbat table of an Ashkenazi does not look anything like the Shabbat table of a Sephardi, that’s for sure.
As long as the food is Glatt Kosher, Sefardim wouldn’t have a problem and I assume any religious Ashkenazi is not eating anything less than Glatt. There are different scenarios where if a person wanted to be totally strict and was careful on a higher level and ate only Beit Yosef, he would have an issue eating by an Ashkenazi. We also have issues in how we cook the food. Our Bishul is on a higher level than Ashkenazim. There are probably leniencies for a Sephardi to eat in an Ashkenazi house, but for those people that are going to be very strict and eat Beit Yosef only and keep bishul Yisrael only, they’ll have a problem with Ashkenazi meat and cooked food.
2) Riding a bicycle on Shabbat
Most of our community is in adherence to Chacham Ovadia Yosef and he forbade it. If you don’t hold by the eruv, there’s not even a question because it’s carrying. Most of the community relies on his teshuva, so just because people do it doesn’t make it right.
3) Putting a goldfish in a pool for Tashlich
Tashlich is a minhag, not a Halacha. It says to go to a body of water. I know that some say to go outside to the river, but this minhag can be done near any body of water; it doesn’t even have to have a fish in it. The fish is really a reminder that a person can be plucked out of the world at any time. That’s just mussar, but you don’t need it for Tashlich. I’ve been in Yeshivot where they just open a faucet and use that for Tashlich.
4) Using an umbrella on Shabbat
Absolutely not. Again, we adhere to Chacham Ovadia. I know there’s a discussion with the Noda Yehuda and the parasol, but we hold it is issur D’orayta. Aside from the carrying, it’s making an awning.
5) Wearing a Kippah to work
Shulchan Aruch (siman daled) the way the Chida understands it, looks at wearing a kippah outside of praying and eating as a stringency. In Syria they lived among the goyim and outside of shul and eating, they didn’t take on that stringency. They tried to blend in without trying to stand out. It is changing today; we don’t have the same level of anti-Semitism we had in the old country so I think people are more comfortable wearing a kippah more often. It was an old custom; it wasn’t a sign that you weren’t religious. If you weren’t eating and you weren’t praying, what did you need the kippah for? It was a stringency.