UK's Sephardi chief married daughter of his yeshiva head

By Doreen Wachmann

THE whole world is devastated by the destruction of Aleppo in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

But the decimation of the ancient city has a special poignancy for Jews whose ancestors hail from the Syrian port.

One of those is the head of UK's Sephardi community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, whose maternal and paternal families both came from there.

Rabbi Dweck, who has headed Britain's Sephardim for the last two years, told me: "Both sides of my family originally came from Aleppo. My mother's family came to New York in 1901 and my father's in the 1920s."

He explained: "Jews left in two waves, one after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, after which commerce in the port city of Aleppo basically died.

"Many Jews then left because of financial problems, not because of persecution. But after the establishment of the state of Israel, it was more an issue of persecution."

Rabbi Dweck continued: "Unfortunately Aleppo is now basically decimated. It is very unfortunate to see the city destroyed. It is a place with such history. Jews have lived in Aleppo since the time of King David."

Some even believe that Abraham milked his cows there on his way from his native town of Ur in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, to Canaan, now Israel.

Under the name of Aram Soba, Aleppo is mentioned in the biblical books of Samuel and the Psalms, which described the conquest of the city by King David's general Joab, who is believed to have built Aleppo's Great Synagogue, known as Joab's Synagogue.

During biblical and Talmudic times Syria was often regarded as part of Israel. The rabbis of the Talmud ruled that the agricultural laws regarding Israel also applied to Syria.

Rabbi Dweck believes that his family went to Aleppo in the wake of Christian persecution in Spain.

It was from the Spanish immigrants to Aleppo that some of the city's greatest rabbinic families came, among them the Dwecks.

Although he came from an ancient rabbinic family, Los Angeles-born Rabbi Dweck never intended to become a rabbi - falling into the profession almost by accident.

Like his father, Joseph loved studying Torah. After being educated at Los Angeles' Yeshiva University school, he went to study at the Jerusalem yeshiva of the late Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, from whom he gained semicha when he later studied at New York's Sephardic Rabbinical College.

He ended up marrying Rabbi Yosef's granddaughter Margalit Joseph.

Rabbi Yosef was a controversial figure, causing repeated controversy by ascribing historical events, such as the Holocaust, death of Israeli soldiers in battle and Hurricane Katrina to sins, as well as seeming to demean the roles of women, Arabs and non-Jews.

In contrast, Rabbi Dweck, who studied psychology and philosophy at California's Santa Monica College, claims to have a "very inclusive, welcoming and thinking" approach to traditional Judaism.

How did he then reconcile himself to some of the views of his mentor, Rabbi Yosef?

"I regard Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as one of the greatest halachic authorities in the 20th century," he said. "He had opinions with which some agreed and some didn't. But he was very well-respected for his scholarship."

Rabbi Dweck, whose community's Montefiore College is Britain's only official rabbinic semicha programme, explained the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi approaches to Talmudic learning.

"The Sephardi method of study is more based upon understanding the framework of the flow of the Talmud rather than on learning many different commentaries, as is the Lithuanian style," he said.

"We focus much more on the language, rhetoric and nuances of the text."

While studying in New York Rabbi Dweck was asked to fill in for a rabbi who had left Congregation Shaare Shalom.

He told me: "I did it, assuming it was only for a bit of time. I ended up being the rabbi there for 16 years. I really didn't plan to be a rabbi, but I enjoyed the study very much. I had not planned it as a career."

In New York, Rabbi Dweck also headed Sephardi school Barkai Yeshivah.

Thoroughly enjoying teaching, he boasted: "The students completed all five books of the Torah by the time they left school.

"Although it was Orthodox, the school was progressive in curriculum, with very strong arts and athletic programmes and a robust secular programme."

Two years ago, Rabbi Dweck received a call to be senior rabbi of Britain's Sephardi community.

He told me: "I had come to a point in my career, after I had been in New York for 16 years, during which time I had done a great deal of work, when I had the opportunity to work with a different country and community which had a philosophy very much in line with my own. It was an interesting opportunity."

So what were the differences between New York Sephardim and those in the UK?

In America, Sephardim tend to live within their own community, based on their country and even city of origin.

Rabbi Dweck's New York synagogue members were of Syrian origin, with Jews hailing from Aleppo tending to live in separate communities from those from Damascus.

Unlike Ashkenazim, who often pursued higher education and the professions, Syrian Jews were predominantly business people.

Rabbi Dweck said: "The New York community was predominantly Syrian, insular and very close-knit and business-orientated.

"They were generally more observant and more insular than the London community which is more diverse, with people from many different backgrounds, Egypt, Iraq, Spanish and Portuguese, Italy and Persian with many different career paths."

British Sephardim, he said, tended to be more westernised and slightly more assimilated than their American counterparts with a 350-year history in Britain and, before that, centuries in Holland.

But, he said: "They have their own way of doing things. They have not taken on Ashkenazi or Lithuanian modes. They have a unique approach to Judaism.

"They are Western Sephardim yet they have a traditional approach. I think that appeals to many people."

He admits that Sephardim are a minority in British Jewry. His organisation has only 3,500 members in three main synagogues in London, Wembley, Bevis Marks and Lauderdale Road.

But it has affiliates in Holland Park, Golders Green, Hendon and south Manchester, which has the UK's largest contingent of Syrian Jews.

Rabbi Dweck is looking forward to visiting Manchester to open the new Shaare Sedek Synagogue in Hale on January 28.

Historically, the head of the British Sephardi community was called the Haham, but this title lapsed after the last Haham, Dr Solomon Gaon, left in 1977 when the community was split over his departure.

He was succeeded by spiritual head Rabbi Abraham Levy. He was succeeded by Rabbi Dweck, who claims he fulfils the same roles as did the Haham without the title.

He is really enjoying his time in the UK, boosting his organisation's membership and enjoying large audiences when he lectures regularly in Hendon.

Although British Sephardim have their own infrastructure of a beth din and kashrut authority, Rabbi Dweck claims to have good relations with the other British synagogal bodies.

He said: "I find the Jewish community in London wonderful and diverse.

"I am enjoying it a great deal. I find the community in general to be open to learning. It is a wonderful, growing community."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph