Redefining Sephardic identity

Students at the Académie Yéshiva Yavné in Montreal recently.

In Canada, especially in Quebec, Sephardic identity has undergone a major change over the last two decades.

“It’s imperative to redefine the Canadian Sephardic identity,” says Avraham Elarar, president of the Canadian Sephardi Federation. “Today, the young Canadian Sephardim, the third generation, don’t have the same referential identity values as those that their parents and grandparents had when they immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and ’70s. Fully integrated into the Jewish community of the city where they live, these young people have an entirely different connection to their Sephardism. They don’t see it as a specific identifying characteristic that must be jealously preserved, but as an essential component of their Judaism. We must take into consideration this basic change if we want to ensure a promising sustainability for Sephardism in Canada.”

Affiliated with the World Sephardi Federation, which is a member of the World Zionist Organization, the Canadian Sephardi Federation is the representative body of Canada’s largest Sephardic communities.

Jacques Saada – president of the Communauté sépharade unifiée du Québec (CSUQ), the umbrella organization for the province’s Sephardim, including the main community institutions, schools and synagogues in Montreal and the surrounding area – agrees with Elarar.

“As of now, the greatest challenge facing the Sephardic community of Canada is an intergenerational challenge. Today, the young Sephardim have a very different vision of Sephardic identity than their elders had when they arrived in Canada more than 50 years ago,” Saada says. “They don’t feel an affinity to their parents’ native country – Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt.… It’s not their history. In Quebec, for example, the young Sephardim speak perfect French and English. French language and culture are no longer a source of division between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as was the case in the past.”

There’s also another fundamental issue that can’t be ignored: traditional religious practice has seen significant changes, Saada stresses.

“Many young Sephardim have abandoned the traditional religious practices of their parents or grandparents and have joined non-Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox religious movements. For the last 20 years or so, there has been a strong ‘Orthodoxization’ of the Sephardic community. This religious radicalization is a major factor that we can’t ignore,” he says.

According to data from the Canadian Sephardi Federation (based on the 2016 Canadian census and demographic studies done by Charles Shahar of Federation CJA in Montreal), about 33,000 Jews out of 391,600 in Canada, are Sephardim. The majority them, 22,000, are in Quebec and 8,000 live in Ontario.

“We’re dealing with approximate statistics that don’t include Israelis of Sephardic descent, whose number is very difficult to calculate in Canada,” Elarar says. “Statistics Canada uses the father for reference. If your father is Sephardic, you are considered as such. It’s very arbitrary as a statistical method.”

The most structured Sephardic community in Canada is in Quebec. In Ontario, the Sephardim have never managed to create a federated organization to unite the diverse Sephardic communities.

“We have tried several times to bring the Sephardic communities of Toronto together under the same institutional leadership,” says Simon Keslassy, president of the Moroccan Jewish Community of Toronto. “The creation of such a federated institution would have given enormous weight to Sephardism in Toronto and in Ontario. The only ones really interested in doing this were the Moroccan Jews. The other Sephardic communities weren’t at all thrilled by our proposition. That’s why we created the Moroccan Jewish Community of Toronto in 2012.”


Toronto has eight Sephardic synagogues, the largest of which are Petah Tikva Anshe Castilla Congregation and the Sephardic Kehila Centre, and one Sephardic primary school, the Joe Dwek Sephardic School, which has 270 students.

Max Benaim, vice-president of the Canadian Sephardi Federation and a founding member and former president of Petah Tikvah synagogue, deplores the lack of unity within Toronto’s Sephardic community.

“Most of Toronto’s Sephardic synagogues were created after a disagreement that led to a sudden split,” Benaim says. “As a result, we have synagogues that are less and less used by young people, most of which boast that they are the most faithful representative of Sephardic religious tradition. From a religious point of view, the ultra-Orthodox, the black hats, have the upper hand.

We have never been able to create a rallying institutional body that might have been able to breathe new life into Toronto Sephardism, as they did in Quebec. That reality casts a shadow on the future perspectives for Sephardism in Ontario.”

The Haim Abenhaim family arriving in Montreal, circa 1964. (JIAS photograph collection Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives)

Educator and academic Yehuda Azoulay – the founder of the Sephardic Legacy Institute, whose mission is to transmit and perpetuate the Sephardic cultural and spiritual heritage – bemoans the fact that most people in the Toronto Jewish community don’t have a good understanding of Sephardic culture and history.

“It’s about time for some aspects of the rich cultural, spiritual and historic heritage of the Sephardim to be taught in the Ashkenazic Jewish schools of Toronto. Sephardic history and the significant contribution of Sephardic rabbinic and intellectual figures to Jewish thought are never included in the academic programs of the non-Sephardic Jewish schools of Toronto. In order for things to change, a new Sephardic community leadership would have to take the necessary steps to convince the management of these schools to begin teaching the history of Sephardism. It would be a big plus for the entire Toronto Jewish community,” says Azoulay.

Keslassy says that Toronto’s Sephardic community is well integrated into the Jewish community of the city: “Community unity is very important for us. The Moroccan Jewish Community of Toronto has an excellent relationship with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Many Ashenazic community members, as well as some political and diplomatic figures, attend our major events – for example, the very popular Mimouna evening that we organize annually to mark the end of Pesach.”

Montreal historian Yolande Cohen, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), has devoted several books and scientific studies to the history of the Sephardic communities that immigrated to Canada beginning at the end of the ’50s and to the dynamics of their integration into Canadian and Quebec societies.

She is astonished by the lack of formal contact between the different Canadian Sephardic communities. This, she says, is despite the willingness shown by Sephardic community leaders to affirm that there is indeed a pan-Canadian Sephardic community.

The differences between the Sephardic community of Montreal and Toronto are striking, she says.

“My hypothesis is this: in Toronto, the Moroccan Jewish community groups consider themselves more as Moroccan Jews than as Sephardim. It’s a big distinction compared to the situation of the Sephardic community of Quebec, where Sephardic identity was established around the French fact and tried to gather the other Sephardic communities together with the Moroccan Jews, who were always the largest group numerically. In Toronto, the Moroccan Jews retained a very Moroccan identity. In Quebec, the Moroccan Jews reinvented a Sephardic identity in which one of the principal pillars is the French language.”

One of the major changes that took place within the Sephardic community of Montreal over the last two decades is the increase in religious practice among many families and young Sephardim.

The Académie Yéchiva Yavné is the result of this phenomenon. Founded in 1991, this ultra-Orthodox primary and secondary Sephardic school, where boys and girls study in separate classes, has been incredibly successful. When it opened, Yavné had only 16 students; today, it has 575.

“The irrepressible need to return to Jewish sources among more and more young Sephardim is an unavoidable community reality that you can’t ignore,” says Saadia Elhadad, the founder and president of Académie Yéchiva Yavné. “These people absolutely want their Sephardic Torah heritage to be maintained and transmitted to the next generations. It’s a movement that has continued to grow.”

In Montreal, École Maïmonide, which was established 50 years ago, was the first French-language Canadian Jewish school. Today, it has 660 students at the primary and secondary levels on two campuses and goes to great lengths to teach the cardinal values of Sephardic tradition. From a religious point of view, the school defines itself as “modern Orthodox.”

“École Maïmonide is the depository of an inclusive, open and tolerant Sephardic Judaism,” says school president Esther Krauze. “Our goal is to pass on to our students a vital Sephardic and Torah heritage, so that they can later be Jews who are proud of their identity and citizens who are fully integrated into the society where they live.”

Elhadad says the split that took place between the Chief Rabbinate of Quebec and the Communauté Sépharade du Québec (CSQ) in the early ’80s, which left a large vacuum of religious leadership, does not explain the phenomenon of young Sephardim becoming more religious.

“This phenomenon, which is universal, is totally independent of the institutional structure of the Sephardic community,” he says. “The crisis between the chief rabbinate and the CSQ is the result of the failure of the attempt to establish in the Sephardic community of Quebec the same community model that had existed in Morocco for several centuries.”

After arriving in Quebec in 1957, Jean-Claude Lasry, who was a member of the third Moroccan Jewish family to settle in Montreal, witnessed the slow, difficult integration of the Sephardim into the Jewish community of Montreal.

“The Sephardic community has come a long way,” Lasry says. “When they arrived in Quebec in the ’60s, they faced their share of discrimination from some of the Jewish community institutions of Montreal. In the early ’70s, École Maïmonide fought vigorously to become a member of the association of Jewish schools of Montreal, which strongly opposed its membership, arguing that the Sephardic school was only teaching eight hours of Jewish studies a week, while the other schools were teaching 12 hours.”

Today, things have changed a great deal. Sephardim hold many important positions at Federation CJA, Lasry adds.

“You must remember that the current Sephardic leaders are francophone, but the culture and reference points for many of them are anglophone. When they arrived in Quebec in the ’60s and ’70s, they were educated in anglophone Protestant schools because, at that time, the French schools were teaching the Catholic catechism. They didn’t renounce their Sephardic heritage in any way, but moved on to another stage: full integration into the greater Jewish community.”

The only Sephardic synagogue in Western Canada is Congrégation Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver. About 2,000 Sephardim live in Vancouver, out of a total Jewish community of about 25,000.

Rabbi Ilan Acoca has been the spiritual leader of Beth Hamidrash for 17 years. There is no specifically Sephardic school in Vancouver, but he is delighted that the city’s three Jewish schools respect the Sephardic rites of their students and regularly contact him to ask him to clarify certain Sephardic halakhot.

“The Sephardim are full-fledged members of the magnificent and very unified Jewish community of Vancouver,” he says. “Congrégation Beth Hamidrash has excellent relations with the other synagogues and Jewish community institutions of Vancouver. What has always characterized the Sephardim throughout their history is their great spirit of openness and tolerance with regard to the other communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish.”

Isabelle Azoulay is the president of the Sephardi Association of Ottawa. Almost 200 Sephardic families have settled in the nation’s capital and the surrounding area, where there are about 14,000 Jews.

The Sephardic community in Ottawa consists of Moroccans, Egyptians and Spanish-speakers from Venezuela and Argentina.

For the main Jewish holidays, the community holds religious services in a rented space and invite a hazzan from Montreal to lead them.

“The Sephardim are well-integrated into the Jewish community of Ottawa,” Azoulay says. “We are a large, beautiful, very unified family that greatly appreciates all the efforts we make to keep the flame of Sephardism alive in Ottawa.”

CSUQ president Jacques Saada is quite optimistic with regard to the future of Sephardism in Canada: “To their credit, the Sephardim of Canada have seen extraordinary community and professional accomplishments, of which they must be very proud. They have nothing to envy in anyone. There is no longer any reason for them to have an inferiority complex compared to their Ashkenazic brothers. They have all the assets to play a leading role within the Canadian Jewish community and the Jewish world. But we must never forget that we are Jews above all.”


Translated from French by Carolan Halpern. Lire la version en français de cet article sur le site Web du CJN: