By Libby Herz for COLlive.com
Dan Shimon was raised in a large, warm Israeli family. He remembers getting dressed in his finest and skipping to shul with his brothers and sisters. Once there, he would watch the chazzan open the Torah, which was encased in gold. Dan sat open-mouthed, enraptured by the chazzan’s chanting of the Torah.
When Dan moved to Crown Heights, he visited many shuls, but couldn’t find one that felt comfortable. “The customs and nusach in the shuls were so different from those at home,” he says. In fact, the shuls felt so unfamiliar to Dan, he gave up on them altogether.
But one day, Rabbi Gad Bouskila of the Morrocan Jewish community in Flatbush, told Dan about a shul in Crown Heights called Merkaz Sefarad. After making contact with Rabbi Lazer Avtzon, the rov of the shul, he showed up and found his spiritual home.
“The people at the shul became like family,” Dan says. “We do seudat Shabbat together and help each other. If I come to shul late, the Rabbi asks me if I’m ok.”
Cong. Merkaz Sefarad Chabad was established in 2005 by Rabbi Avtzon and his wife, Sarah Avtzon, PhD. Both have close ties to Morrocan Jewish tradition – she was born and raised there, while he served as a Shliach there in 1983. Since their marriage in 2000, the Avtzons would spend Tishrei and Pesach in Morocco and assumed they would be moving there on Shlichus.
Following the passing of the long-time Shliach in Casablanca, Rabbi Leibel Raskin OBM, an offer was made to the Avtzons to relocate. When things didn’t move in that direction, Rabbi Avtzon learned a sicha in which the Rebbe said that a person should not hold himself back from doing Shlichus just because he was not personally called up to do so by the Rebbe.
Then and there, Rabbi Avtzon decided to take the initiative and open a shul for the Moroccan Jewish community in Crown Heights; and a new Sephardic shul was born.
Merkaz Sefarad caters to Sephardic families who wish to maintain their culture and nusach. Congregants hail from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, France, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Israel. The nusach of davening, kerias hatorah and all halachos follow the Sephardic laws in the Moroccan customs. The chazzan and baal koreh follow Moroccan liturgy.
Unique to this shul are the active commemorations of both Sephardic and Chassidic special days in the Jewish calendar. They mark the yartzeits (or hilulah, as it is called) of the Baba Sali, the great posek Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, as well as of Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, the first Shliach sent by the Rebbe to Morocco. And this is in addition to the special Chassidic dates of Yud Tes Kislev and Yud Shvat, for example.
“It’s the most Sephardic minyan in Crown Heights,” says Niso, a local resident who is originally from Turkey. “My wife and I moved to Crown Heights two years ago. At home, the community was 99% Sephardic. The customs that we kept were from Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia.”
The crowd in shul reminds Niso of his hometown. “I value having something from my roots. The shul is not a big one, but it feels warm and family-like which is something I was looking for in a minyan.”
Women also enjoy coming to Shul. Pre-pandemic, there were between seven to twelve women in the women’s section on Shabbos.
Rochel Ohayan, who hails from Morocco, attends Merkaz Sefarad every week. “The rabbi always notices when someone isn’t at shul,” she says. “He calls to see how we are doing. Families invite each other over for Shabbos and yom tov. This shul is home.”
Or shall we say, a home away from their hometown.
Cong. Merkaz Sefarad Chabad
556 Crown Street (side entrance from Albany Ave)
Brooklyn NY 11213
Email: [email protected]
(The shul is currently in the stages of moving to a new location)
Mincha 10 minutes after Hadlakah
Followed by Shir Hashirim / Kabbalat Shabbat and Arvit
9:00 AM during winter, 9:30 AM in the summer
Mincha approximately 30 minutes before candle lighting time
Followed by Seudah Shlishit and Divrei Torah by Rabbi Daniel Mahpour and two bochurim from Kvutzah
Arvit bizman followed by Havdala
For the month of Elul through Yom Kippur:
Slichot 6:00 AM
Shachrit 7:00 AM
Our Shuls – profiles of the shuls of Crown Heights on COLlive.com: