Rabbi Michael Azose:
Building a Sephardic Stronghold in Chicago
By Jason Maoz
Jewish PressStaff Writer
It happened when Rabbi Michael Azose was a student at Telshe Yeshiva in the late 1950’s: he was reading from his nusach Sephard siddur when a friend of his looked over his shoulder and noticed that the Aleinu prayer contained the verse Sheheim mishtachavim l’chevel v’larik . The well-meaning friend promptly crossed out the line, unconvinced that if something is not found in the Ashkenaz nusach, it does not belong in any other nusach.
Such was life for a Sephardic young man in an Ashkenazi yeshiva circa 1958. And while he says there is probably more of an awareness of Sephardic minhagim in today’s yeshiva world, Rabbi Azose feels the incident can still stand as a metaphor for a casual arrogance all too prevalent among otherwise knowledgeable, sensitive, Torah-observant Ashkenazim.
"Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful for the Torah education I received at Telshe," he says. And no one there ever purposely slighted me or any other Sephardic student. But I would be less than honest if I said I wasn’t aware of the almost unconscious attitude that Ashkenazic customs were somehow instituted by Moshe at the foot of Har Sinai.’
This automatic assumption that Ashkenaz minhagim represent the most authentic form of Torah Judaism is encountered on a daily basis by Sephardim and by Ashkenazim who have become sensitized to the problem. Rabbi Azose says it can often create awkward situations, particularly when Ashkenazic teachers in day schools and yeshivas presume to speak to Sephardic students about differing customs. He experienced this himself some years ago when his son (Rabbi Azose and his wife Bonnie, have three children and three grandchildren) once came home from yeshiva with a question that had dominated the discussion in one of his classes.
‘His teacher had been writing some of the melachot of Shabbat on the blackboard. My son politely pointed out that according to Sephardic tradition, soap can be used on Shabbat. The teacher, who interestingly enough had been a roommate of mine at Telshe, was certain my son was mistaken. Go home and ask your father,’ he said.
I wrote his teacher a note explaining that Sephardim do indeed permit the use of soap on Shabbat and I included some rulings on the subject by [former Israeli Chief Rabbi] Ovadia Yosef. To his credit, my son’s teacher revised his teaching. But I wonder whether a teacher who didn’t know me would have been as good-natured about being corrected, and as willing to acknowledge that Sephardic practice is just as valid as Ashkenazic."
The Making of A Windy-City Rabbi
Rabbi Azose was born in Seattle, a city that has long boasted one of the country’s strongest and most self-confident Sephardic communities. His parents were both in Turkey, and his uncle on his mother’s side, Rabbi Solomon Maimon, has for better than half a century been one of the most beloved and respected Sephardic sages in America. It was in this secure and Torah-centered environment that Rabbi Azose was raised, proud of his Sephardic heritage and not at all cognizant of the fact that Sephardim in other North American communities felt inferior to the numerically superior Ashkenazim.
When I was growing up," he says, Sephardim were between a quarter and a third of Seattle’s overall Jewish population, and the influence of the Sephardic community was even greater than its numbers. Consequently, it wasn’t until I left Seattle that I realized just how unusual a situation that was. And I’m sure it contributed to my sense of culture shock upon my arrival at Telshe."
Rabbi Azose reiterates his fond memories of Telshe — the learning, the camaraderie, the dedication to Torah — which on balance, he says, more than made up for any sense of dislocation he might have felt. He did desire a university education, something frowned on at the yeshiva, so in time he moved on to Hebrew Theological College (Beis Medrash L’Torah) in Skokie, Illinois, where he received his smicha, and earned a degree in psychology from Roosevelt University.
Chicago would become Rabbi Azose’s permanent home, and he would come to be recognized as one of the Windy City’s outstanding rabbis, a pillar of the Sephardic community and a respected figure for Ashkenazim as well. In 1970, a fledgling synagogue in suburban Evanston, for decades known in its old location on the west side of Chicago as the Portuguese Israelite Fraternity, invited him to become one of its three part-time rabbis. Within a few years the synagogue, by then called Sephardic Congregation, arranged for Rabbi Azose to take over as the sole full-time spiritual leader. Under his guidance, Sephardic Congregation rapidly became one of the area’s premier synagogues growing to its present membership of better than 200 families, 95 percent of whom are Sephardic and whose backgrounds reflect the wide sweep of Sephardic history — Turkish, Greek, Yugoslav, Lebanese, Egyptian, Tunisian, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Yemenite and at least half a dozen more. When I first arrived," says Rabbi Azose, "not one congregant was shomer Shabbat. The synagogue was, but the membership wasn’t. I took it as my personal challenge to make something of it. We started adding services. shiurim, social activities - and a spirit of enthusiasm really caught on and spread throughout the Sephardic community."
Rabbi Azose’s ability to reach others, especially young people, with his infectious approach to Judaism is evident from his experience as a teacher in several schools at various levels over the past 30 years. His dedication to Jewish education led him to press for the creation of the first Sephardic day school in the Midwest, a dream that was finally realized a few years ago. "I realized a number of years back that if we were to grow as a community, we needed a day school of our own, he says. "It was difficult to get the ball rolling at the start, but with the help of some very fine individuals and the two other Sephardic synagogues in the Chicago area, we managed.
The Sephardic Hebrew Day School has an enrollment this year of 45 students through the 3rd grade; more than 60 students are expected next year when a 4th grade will be added. ‘Our next step is to find larger facilities," says Rabbi Azose "and hopefully, in the not too distant future, we’ll have our own building. Sometimes the progress seems slow, hut when you step back and look at how far we’ve come in just a couple of years, it’s really very gratifying."
Rabbi Azose enjoys a high profile in Chicago, the result of years of involvement in communal and organizational affairs. Positions he’s held include president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council; chairman of the Association for Torah Advancement; and Chicago director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. A founding member of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a board member of the American Sephardic Federation, and the vice president of the recently-formed Council of Sephardic Rabbis, he says his only worry is that he spreads himself too thin — but there is too much for him to do to even consider cutting back.
Sephardic Rabbis Organize
The Council of Sephardic Rabbis was created to bring together Sephardic religious leaders and enable them to work for the strengthening of Sephardic communities in the U.S., Canada and South America (THE JEWISH PRESS, Sephardic Experience in America, March 6, 1998). Rabbi Azose is the organization’s vice president and cochaired its historic three-day meeting in Deal, N.J. last September. One of the things he liked best about the convention, he says, is that "We were able to showcase some wonderful Sephardic scholars, and learn from many of our most revered leaders, including Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who came in from Israel to address the gathering."
Of particular importance, says Rabbi Azose, was the formation of a 10-member Halachic Committee comprised of Rabbis Avraham, Baruch and Eliyahu Benhaim; Gabriel Cohen; Isaac Dwek; Haim Benoliel; Davis Sabbah; Solomon Maimon; and Syrian Chief Rabbi Saul Kassin.
There is a real need for Sephardic rabbis to interpret Halacha from our own perspective," Rabbi Azose explains, ‘and to paskin questions based on our own tradition. We are blessed with so many scholars — men of tremendous learning and devotion to Torah — but we have not utilized our spiritual resources nearly as wisely as we should have. The Council of Sephardic Rabbis will, G-d willing, change that."
At age 55, Rabbi Azose is in the rare position of a man who can look back at a long list of impressive accomplishments and still anticipate doing even more. His interest in the Sephardic approach to kashrut, particularly in such areas as bishul akum and glatt meat, is something to which he’s devoting an increasing amount of time and effort, and he’s already planning the next convention of the Council of Sephardic Rabbis, which will be held in Toronto at a still-unspecified date. Meanwhile, he speaks before Jewish groups across the country, works on behalf of numerous educational and community organizations and, of course, leads Sephardic Congregation as he’s done for nearly three decades.
His priority, through everything he does, remains the same: the glorification and preservation of Sephardic Torah tradition. "We must," he says, "make sure that the ancient and sacred practices of Sephardic Jewry live on in future generations of Sephardim. We have a beautiful history, an inspiring legacy; the goal now is to ensure a vibrant future."