A Strong Voice of the Sephardic Community

Marc D. Angel, Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City.

Rhodes is a small island, just off the Turkish Coast, with a history that is as colorful as the natural beauty of the island. According to famous Jewish historian Abraham Galant, as the 16th century opened, Cardinal D'Aubusson of Rhodes initiated forced conversion of the Jews to Catholicism and other persecutions. His intended expulsions were rescinded only because he died suddenly. Soon after, Christian pirates captured more than 2000 Jews and forced them to work on fortifications. When the Turks, under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) besieged the island, the Jews sided with the invader, who was victorious.
Suleiman encouraged exiles from Spain to settle in Rhodes and gave them favorable conditions, such as autonomy and religious freedom, housing and certain tax exemptions. Jews outnumbered the Turks and created in Rhodes a major Sephardic center that absorbed the earlier Romaniot kehillah and led them to adopt Sephardic customs and Ladino. The kehillah prospered under the tolerant Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years, until 1912.

One of the residents of Rhodes, Sol Menashe, wrote that under Italian rule, which began in 1912, conditions deteriorated gradually, culminating in the rule of Mussolini, whose siding with Hitler resulted in atrocities and deportation of virtually all the Jews from the island to labor and death camps in July 23, 1944. From its heyday of 5,000 Sephardim, the Jewish population was reduced to just a few souls who remained. 1,604 died at the murderous hands of the Nazis and the others emigrated during the Italian occupation, mainly to Africa, Argentina and America. Many Sephardic families fled to Rhodesia before the island's approximately 5,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps. There were 40,000 Jews in Rhodes before World War II. Now, only 35 remain.

Marc D. Angel, Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, was born in Seattle's Sephardic community; his ancestors are Sephardim from Turkey and Rhodes and he grew up speaking Ladino at home.

Seattle was home to Turkish Jews in the early 20th century. In June 1902, the first Sephardic Jews, Solomo Calvo (d. 1964) and Jacob Policar (d. 1961), arrived in Seattle from Marmara, Turkey. In 1904, Nissim Alhadeff arrived in Seattle from the Isle of Rhodes. More Jews arrived and joined the community in Seattle. Sephardim from Istanbul and Rodosto (Tekirdağ) joined those from Rhodes and Marmara.

Rabbi Solomon Maimon was the first Sephardi to receive semiha at Yeshiva University and in the country. He remained the rabbi of Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) Congregation for 40 years. After him more than 30 SBH members followed in his footsteps, going to New York to further their Jewish education by attending Yeshiva University, a private university in New York City, with six campuses in New York and one in Israel, founded in 1886, at either its Yeshiva College (for men) or Stern College (for women). Marc Angel was one of 30 students.  After spending his boyhood in Seattle, Angel moved to New York for his education at Yeshiva University.  He received his B.A., M.S., Ph.D., Th.D. honoris causa and his rabbinal Semicha from Yeshiva University and also has an M.A. in English Literature from the City College of New York.

The author and editor of 26 books, also a former President of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Marc D. Angel answered TURKOFAMERICA’s questions at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue which he has been serving since 1969 in New York City.

Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had been living in Recife, Brazil. It was the first Jewish congregation to be established in North America. Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. Members of Shearith Israel played an important role in civic life from the earliest times. Three of its members were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.

Rabbi Angel says the synagogue is one of the most remarkable buildings in New York City. His son now serves at the synagogue as well. Rabbi Angel also founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, in the autumn of 2007, and he serves as its Director. The Institute works to foster an intelligent, compassionate and inclusive Jewish Orthodoxy.   

He still remembers how his family members entertained themselves with Turkish songs and he sings the famous song “Katibim” and showed how they danced to the music. He has visited Turkey only once, almost 30 years ago.  He is married to Gilda Angel. They have three children and six grandchildren. Their son, Hayyim, serves as Rabbi of Shearith Israel.

A Sephardic Haggadah: Translation and Commentary (Hoboken, 1988).
The Jews of Rhodes, The History of a Sephardic Community (New York, 1978)
La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States (Philadelphia, 1982)
The Rhythms of Jewish Living: A Sephardic Approach (New York, 1986)
The Orphaned Adult: Confronting the Death of a Parent (1987)
Voices in Exile: A Study in Sephardic Intellectual History (1991)
The Essential Pele Yoetz: an Encyclopedia of Ethical Jewish living (1991)
Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1999)
Remnant of Israel: A Portrait of America's First Jewish Congregation (2004)
Losing the Rat Race, Winning at Life (2005)
Choosing to be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion (2005)
The Search Committee: A Novel (2008)
"Conversion to Judaism: Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge", Hakirah, vol. 8 (Brooklyn, 2008)
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07