Sephardi delegation heads to Ottawa, meets PM

Sephardi community leaders pose for a picture in Centre Block.

For the first time in Canadian history, an official delegation of Sephardi community leaders, activists, philanthropists and spiritual leaders from across the country visited Parliament Hill and met with the prime minister, ambassadors and other dignitaries.

Organized by B’nai Brith Canada and the Sephardic Legacy Institute, the trip took about 30 Sephardi leaders to Ottawa on Feb. 26 to educate Canada’s political leaders about the Sephardi community and testify before the parliamentary committee on human rights regarding the threat posed by the current Iranian regime.

Speaking with The CJN in advance of the trip, Yehuda Azoulay, founder of the Sephardic Legacy Institute, whose goal is to preserve Sephardi heritage, explained that he, as well as David Matas, a human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, will testify before the Foreign Affairs sub-commitee on human rights about Iran’s aim to wipe Israel off the map and to obtain nuclear weapons.

“People are coming from Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Winnipeg representing Canadian Sephardi Jewry for the first time,” Azoulay said, adding that the itinerary also includes meetings with the national Defence Minister Jason Kenney and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

“We want to create a relationship between the government of Canada and Sephardi communities across Canada,” Azoulay said.

“There are 380,000 Jews in Canada, 50,000 to 60,000 of whom are Sephardi, so therefore, we carry a lot of weight and we could influence many different things.”

He said seven members of the delegation – B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn, B’nai Brith president Henry Schnurbach, Toronto-based financial industry consultant Eric Benchetrit, Montreal-based entrepreneur Steve Maman, Communauté Juive Marocaine de Toronto president Simon Keslassy and Rabbi Ilan Acoca, spiritual leader of Vancouver’s Beit Hamidrash Synagogue – were granted a private, half-hour meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“We’ll be discussing securities for the Jewish community in general, and the Sephardi community,” Azoulay said

Rabbi Acoca said one of the issues to be discussed throughout the visit to Parliament Hill is the fact that Sephardi Jews, many of whom were forced to emigrate from Muslim countries, should be considered refugees.

“History has shown that Sephardi Jews have been forgotten,” said Rabbi Acoca, who serves about 100 families at his Vancouver shul.

“Just recently in Israel the government decided there is going to be a memorial day for Jews from Muslim countries on Nov. 30. It will recognize that Sephardi Jews contributed to the Jewish world and society in general, but more than that, we are refugees as well,” he said.

“It is important for people to know… that as the [Sephardi community] is getting older, they are not being forgotten, so this trip is going to be done in their honour and in the memory of the people who fled from Muslim countries because they were forced to.”

Rabbi Acoca said that having served the only Sephardi congregation west of Toronto for the past 15 years, he understands how important it is to keep the Sephardi tradition alive in Western Canada and the rest of the world.

“I’m also looking forward to meeting dignitaries and ministers and to let them know that this is who we are. We are Sephardi Jews, we are part of the Jewish world, we are here, we are alive and existing, and they should be educated about it,” said Rabbi Acoca, who is also the head of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Sephardic Affinity Group.

In addition to being part of a delegation that is working to build a partnership with the Canadian government, Rabbi Acoca said he’s also looking forward to connecting with other Jewish leaders across the country.

“I’m honoured to be part of this delegation. It’s a historical moment for Canada.”