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Saturday, August 29, 2015

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Canadian champions Sephardi heritage

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Yehuda Azoulay, right, presents some of his written work to the former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. [Zvi Hakak photo]

TORONTO — Next month, an event at the U.S. Capitol building will pay tribute to Sephardi Jewry and its contribution to American Jewish culture and society.

A select group of individuals is slated to be honoured for their personal achievements within Sephardi society, and among them will be a Canadian, Yehuda Azoulay of Toronto, who will be recognized for his contribution to Sephardi literature and his involvement in Sephardi causes.

Azoulay, only 25, has already authored three books on Sephardi rabbis (one-fifth of his planned series) and countless articles on Sephardi leaders and history, in his mission to educate Sephardim (and all Jews) about Sephardi heritage.

He’ll stand out as the youngest honoree at the May 16 luncheon, which is being organized by the Friedlander Group, a public relations firm that specializes in working with American Jewish groups, and will feature members of U.S. Congress. But Azoulay will be in heady company: the event will also be honouring two prominent Sephardi rabbis, Israeli Internal Affairs Minister Eli Yishai and fellow MK Nissim Zeev.

Brimming with the optimism and vigour of youth, Azoulay is enthusiastic about discussing this seminal project and directs me to his compact home office. Tidy, but crammed bookshelves cover every vertical space, except for a portion of wall showcasing a life-size portrait of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel is considered by some to be the foremost present-day Sephardi leader and a reviver of Sephardi identity and pride.

Rabbi Yosef is certainly a fitting spectator of this room’s activity. Not only does Azoulay maintain a close relationship with him, but, in Azoulay’s words, “We share the same goals, same mentality, same agenda.” Azoulay identifies Rabbi Yosef as his most influential motivator in his decision to record the legacy of Sephardi heritage.

Azoulay discovered the need for English biographies of Sephardi rabbis during a year of post-high school study in Israel. An extensive search through bookstores, libraries, archives and even online sources yielded a single publication: a book about Baba Sali, the illustrious 20th-century Moroccan spiritual leader. Back home in North America, his continued search also yielded nothing.

Sweeping his hands across his bookshelves, Azoulay emphasizes the enormous imbalance between the number of English-language biographies of Ashkenazi rabbis and those of Sephardi rabbis. It was clear to him that a parallel Sephardi library was needed.

But it was a cavalier comment to Azoulay by a student at a kollel where he was studying that the number of Torah-great Sephardi rabbis throughout history could be counted on one hand that impelled him to start writing.

He was 19 years old.

Azoulay’s first book, A Legacy of Leaders, was published in 2008, and a second volume, A Legacy of Leaders II, the following year. Nearly 5,000 copies of the first have been printed thus far, not including translations in French, Spanish and, expected later this year, Persian.

Designed to appeal to all readers, the books contain brief biographical chapters and vignettes of better-known Sephardi rabbis, intentionally including those that Ashkenazim might recognize, too. However, Azoulay’s third book, Ben Ish Hai, is a 400-plus-page tome devoted to a single rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Haim.

The books have garnered incredible feedback. People have contacted Azoulay not just to laud his work and appeal for more publications, but many have reached out to him as an ambassador of Sephardi heritage.

Azoulay has also found that his audience extended well beyond the Sephardi community, which was actually his objective.

“That’s the goal: to educate everyone,” he says. “These rabbis belong to us all.”

Azoulay’s appreciation of his Sephardi heritage is rooted in his upbringing. Although he was born in Toronto, his parents are both Moroccan. Originally non-observant, the family became Orthodox during his childhood, but always rigorously upheld their Sephardi traditions.

Azoulay’s Sephardi identity was intensified by the anecdotes about great rabbis and historical events imparted in shul, at community gatherings and around the Shabbat table. He credits his parents’ influence and reinforcement of Sephardi heritage, as well as the personal guidance of Rabbi Amram Assayag, Toronto’s prominent Sephardi leader, for his decision to undertake this venture.

Azoulay continues his family’s traditions in his own home, which he shares with his wife, Rena, and two young daughters. But he worries about the influences of both secular society and the predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish community on his own children, specifically, and on Sephardi youth in general.

He wants Sephardim to embrace their beautiful heritage and be proud of it, but he believes that to do so, they must know something about it.

Azoulay wants to inspire and educate, and there’s no doubt that while he’s already achieving this through his publications and as a teacher of Jewish philosophy to high school students, his ambition and passion are propelling him further.

He plans to pursue a PhD in Sephardi or general Jewish history at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School after simultaneously completing his BA in history through Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and his MA at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education (which accepted Azoulay on the merit of his published work, despite his not having yet completed his BA).

He has somehow managed to find time to create SephardicLegacy.com, a website focused on Sephardi Torah literature, and to volunteer with numerous Sephardi organizations. Ultimately, Azoulay sees himself professionally involved in the Sephardi community and is already entertaining related job offers.

But that’s only part of his immediate to-do list, which includes building a high-school Jewish history curriculum, producing documentaries, creating an expansive online hub for Sephardi Jews, helping to develop an international Sephardi organization and even dabbling in Israeli politics, because Azoulay, a self-professed history buff, sees that as the only way to change the future.

Among other political causes, Azoulay hopes for a socio-economic transformation for Sephardim in Israel, where he says they’re often considered second-class citizens.

And he’s already at work on his next book, about the Chida, Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay (an indirect relative), which is due out in April 2013.

Azoulay’s zeal is clearly what fuels him: he enthusiastically recounts his recent experience discovering the archived documents regarding the Chida’s 1960 Jerusalem reburial. Until Azoulay stumbled across the collection, no one had looked at it since 1961. “Can you imagine,” he enthuses, “that nobody opened it in 50 years?”

In all, Azoulay plans to write about 15 books, one of which will be about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. This will likely be his tour de force, not just because of the greatness of Rabbi Yosef, but because of Azoulay’s own relationship with him. Recently, the rabbi even offered Azoulay the rights to translate into English all 53 of his volumes on Halachah. Azoulay declined, because it would remove him from his own work.

In his goal to educate and motivate others, he says that researching and writing about these rabbinic personalities have inspired him, too, reinforcing his own connection to God, Sephardi leaders and the community. And through his work, he has greatly expanded his network within the Sephardi world, assisting him in his ongoing research and placing him at the vanguard of Sephardi society and leadership today.

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