As Passover approached 25 years ago, Diane Chabbot’s daughter was finally ready to participate in the songs and prayers of the seder with her family. The first grader had been practicing them constantly in her Hebrew day school class at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. But when the little girl realized the Ashkenazi prayer melodies she had come to know didn’t match the melodies sung by her large Syrian family, she began to cry.
The incident was subsequently brought before the school’s board of education by Chabbot’s family rabbi and current head of the yeshivah’s high school, Raymond Harari. It reflected not just one family’s experience but rather a major demographic change in the neighborhood and the yeshivah. The growing Syrian population in Flatbush was tilting the yeshivah’s student body from a historically Ashkenazi majority, descending from German or Eastern European Jews, to a Sephardic majority, descending from Spanish or Middle Eastern Jews. By 1989, three years later, the school had instituted an Integrated Sephardic Ashkenazic Seder and a school-wide Sephardic tefillah, or morning prayer, as an alternative to the Ashkenazi one. And those were only the beginning of the educational adaptations.
“We’re not completely different, the basic conceptions are the same,” said Chabbot, who adopted her Syrian husband’s Sephardic customs after being raised in an Ashkenazi household. “But customs are different, melodies are different, shul is different, and so some of the things that have changed are just this awareness of the richness of the different cultures.”
Rabbi Lawrence Schwed became a principal at the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s elementary school in the late 1980s, and said the first thing that he did was create Sephardic tefillah groups so that both Ashkenazi and Sephardic children could pray according to their respective traditions. “What good does it do for me to teach you how I pray,” Schwed said, if “ your parents aren’t familiar with it and that’s not what you’re going to hear in your synagogue.”
Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish population is currently estimated to be 75,000 and growing, and Schwed said that “the vast majority” of the school’s K-8 students are now Sephardic, compared to about half in 1989.
Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews vary in cultural practices and dietary considerations as well as religious prayers and customs. For example, Ashkenazi Jews, unlike the Sephardim, refrain from eating rice during Passover. In Sephardic culture, naming children after grandparents is common, even if they are alive, while Ashkenazim typically pass the names of deceased relatives to the next generation.
Founded in 1927, the Yeshivah of Flatbush is a coeducational, Modern Orthodox private school with roughly 2,100 students. According to the school’s executive vice president, Dennis Eisenberg, the school has always drawn from the Sephardic community, but in increasing numbers over the years. Eisenberg said this trend is even more pronounced in the elementary and middle schools because community demographics drive the student population, but that the school does not collect data on how many students enroll in either the Sephardic or Ashkenazic minyanim, or morning prayer meetings.
Still, Harari said the school doesn’t define itself as Ashkenazic or Syrian. “There was always a desire to have an integration of both traditions,” said the head of the Joel Braverman High School.
The first Syrian Jews came to America in the early 20th century and initially settled in Manhattan, but moved to the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn after the Eastern European Jews dominating Manhattan denigrated them as “Arab Jews.” In the 1980s, the Syrians who had accumulated a degree of wealth and success began to flow into Flatbush, where home values were rising.
Schwed said the school ran routine staff-development programs in order to train what was then a mostly Ashkenazi staff in becoming familiar with Sephardic culture. “The teachers had to retool, just like you have to technologically retool these days,” Schwed said, although the Yeshivah of Flatbush does not hire nor keep count of teachers based on their Sephardic or Ashkenazic backgrounds.
Other than the morning tefillah, Sephardic and Ashkenazic students attend the same classes. During the after-lunch prayer and holidays, the school either alternates between or observes both Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.
In the yeshivah’s preschool, however, Schwed said students are only taught the Sephardic tefillah, a change that was made several years ago when the student population tilted towards a Sephardic majority. Having separate tefillot “was too confusing for the children,” Schwed said. “So now everybody in the preschool learns Sephardic tefillah, and beginning in first grade we separate them based on what their parents choose.”
In 2008, the elementary school launched an updated Sephardic tefillah program that Schwed said has exceeded beyond the school’s wildest expectations. “Our students were always top academically, but we got killed on Shabbat because our kids couldn’t compete with the kids from the other schools in terms of prayers,” Schwed said. “Now our kids are flying on Shabbat.”
Alex Schindler, a 2007 graduate, wrote in an email that the elementary school’s efforts have allowed the Yeshivah of Flatbush to compete for Syrian students with nearby, exclusively Sephardic day schools like Magen David.
In the last few years, Harari said, the yeshivah’s Joel Braverman High School has offered a Sephardic history elective in addition to Sephardic-based independent study. The mandatory Jewish history class has also given increased emphasis to Sephardic history.
Schindler wrote that while he expected the amount of Sephardic programming to eventually increase in the high school, there currently wasn’t much.
“The mandatory Jewish history class, for example, is almost entirely synonymous, when dealing with the modern period, with Modern Ashkenazi Jewish history, though my teacher taught a little bit of Sephardic history,” Schindler wrote, adding that the exams students could take for Yeshiva University credit wouldn’t test for the Sephardic material.
Eisenberg said that in the high school a greater balance exists between Sephardic and Ashkenazi students, with students commuting from areas like New Jersey, Manhattan and Westchester. Schindler wrote that he estimates the proportion is now about 70 percent Sephardic, 30 percent Ashkenazic. When he was in high school, the Sephardic students’ minyan was moved into the auditorium previously occupied by the Ashkenazic students, who were relocated into classrooms as their numbers continued to fall.
Ashkenazi Jews have slowly trickled out of Flatbush and Midwood to enclaves in the tri-state area partly due to a growing affluence. Schwed said another reason was that during 1980s housing boom in Flatbush, some Ashkenazim decided to sell their homes and move to where their children had relocated. “Their kids were not coming back to Flatbush,” Schwed said.
Schwed also said more Modern Orthodox schools have sprung up in areas where Ashkenazim have relocated, and have improved in addition to being closer to students. While the school used to have two full buses of Ashkenazim coming in from Staten Island, Schwed said now they’re down to one van. “The Yeshivah of Flatbush used to be the only show in town in terms of what we offered,” Schwed said. “Now many, many schools have copied our model, and that’s very flattering.”
The remaining Ashkenazic population in Flatbush is predominately “black-hat,” or stringently Orthodox Jews, who are less inclined to engage in secular society or send their children to a modern, coeducational Orthodox school like the Yeshivah of Flatbush.
Ami Sasson, the president-elect of the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Ladies Auxiliary and 1992 graduate, said she had many Ashkenazic friends while she was a student, and the groups’ outward trend was a loss to the diversity of Flatbush. “A lot of people in school, including my kids,” she said, “say they wish there were more Ashkenaz.”
Schwed said the yeshivah currently gives $9 million of its $36 million budget in tuition assistance. There has been some discussion about possible merit scholarships to the school in the future, but despite the high costs of a private religious education, Schwed said the school has been “bursting at the seams” with a rapidly growing student population. Schwed said more pupils want to come to the Yeshivah of Flatbush because they “want the mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, even though the shift has gone the other way.”