The historical saga of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation begins in Medieval Spain. The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry was coming to a tragic close with the Edict of Expulsion issued by Fedinand and Isabella in March of 1492. Forced to flee, our ancestors went to other areas of the Levant. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, eager to take advantage of the Spaniards folly opened his ports and cities to the refugees. The Sephardim brought with them a rich and cherished heritage, a language of their own, unique customs, Romanzas (music) and a tapestry of cultural and religious treasures. As they settled in their new home in many parts of the Ottoman Empire, these Jews transplanted their culture, maintaining a legacy of centuries of wisdom and knowledge. They flourished amidst their hosts, but were always cognizant of their heritage.
Our timeline now shifts to the beginning of the twentieth century. Two young Turkish Sephardic Jews from the Island of Marmara disembark in Seattle in 1902. Though Solomon Calvo and Jacob Policar find it difficult to be accepted by the local Jewish population, they lay the foundation for their friends and relatives to join them in Seattle. As with any other immigrants, they faced many hardships acclimating to their new home. With similar industry found in their native land, they found work in fishing, produce, and similar ventures.
They formed social groups to share memories of their old home, conversing in their native Ladino, thus forming the basis of a community. They shared in happy occasions and sad ones. Along with their material possessions, they brought along with them their unique Sephardic culture. Among family and friends, they found friendship, business partners and spouses for themselves and for their children. They were determined that their community would maintain its strong social and religious bonds. Their synagogue was central to their lives. Their unwavering commitment and realization of this central position was foremost in their minds and hearts. They cherished their spirited leaders and likewise produced lay leaders who were also men of distinction. The women nurtured their dreams of a vibrant community by contributing their energies and time to the Ladies Auxiliary and by encouraging their husbands and children to fulfill the precepts and observances of their traditions.
Through the era of WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and WWII, our pioneers experienced life as Americans. The passing of each decade brought the need to occupy larger, more substantial synagogues. Industrious and determined, these men and women of vision and courage constructed a magnificent Sanctuary in the middle of the Depression era. As Mr. Isaac Maimon, our community historian and archivist, relates in his history of our synagogue, “…it was no easy task.
They cherished their spiritual leaders. Maintaining their link with their native land, they first brought Ribi Shelomo Azose and his family from Turkey to lead them. Then came Rabbi Isaac Azose and Rabbi Abraham Maimon, who would be the most responsible for changing the character of this community. Rabbi Solomon Maimon assumed the position as our spiritual leader and ensured the continuity of our traditions.
Our congregation enjoyed the qualities of their dedicated Hazzanim and Gabbaim, men such as Nessim Azose, Bension Maimon, whose 24th Avenue Market functioned as the hub of the community and in whose later years would serve as our leading scholar of Sephardic lore, Reverend Morris B. Scharhon, who taught the basics of Judaism to the youth of our community, and Mr. Jack Maimon.realization of the central position that the synagogue occupied was foremost in their minds and hearts.”
Behor Chiprut, as Gabbai, began a tradition of exceptional dedicated Gabbaim. The mantel later passed to Leo Azose, who also served as Assistant Hazzan, and then to the amiable Victor Scharhon, and now, continuing their legacy, our current Gabbai, the esteemed Mr. Larry Almo. There was the unique personality of Avraham Barlia, our one and only Shamash. Our lay leaders were also men of distinction. Men such as John Calderon, Sam H. Baruch, Samuel Morhaime, Joseph Cordova, Henry Benezra, Marco Romey, Isaac V. Varon, Joseph Caston, Ben Mezistrano, Nat Barokas and a host of others, all stepped forward from the ranks to lead the way. And those marvelous women who nurtured their dreams of a vibrant community by contributing their energies and time to the Ladies Auxiliary. Under the leadership of these men and women, in 1963 our synagogue made another move to Seward Park where the synagogue currently resides. Their photographs are prominently displayed in the Sam H, Baruch Social Hall. As their beneficiaries, we will be forever in their debt for their vision and effort.
Our community grew under the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Solomon Maimon whose zeal for Jewish education led to the creation of the Seattle Hebrew Academy and the formation of a summer camp where our youth would form bonds of friendship and understanding of our customs and heritage. With the arrival of Reverend Samuel Benaroya, a noted Hazzan, our community reached a new point in its history. Thanks to his unparalleled dedication and enthusiasm, out liturgy was being preserved in its original form and transmitted to the next generation.
With the retirement of Reverend Benaroya, we were fortunate to find Hazzan Itzhak Bahar, also of Turkish background. His short stay and tragic demise affected us all. With the announcement of Rabbi Maimon’s intent to retire, a worldwide search was conducted to find a Rabbi of stature sufficient to serve as our spiritual leader.
We were even more fortunate to locate Rabbi Simon Benzaquen of Maracaibo, Venezuela and he (with his family) joined us in 1984. For 28 years, Rabbi Benzaquen not only served as spiritual leader of SBH, he also used his skills as a mohel, dayan, sofer and artist to serve the greater Seattle Jewish community.
Shortly after Rabbi Benzaquen assumed his new role, the synagogue hired Rabbi Frank Varon as its official Hazzan in 1985. Trained by Reverend Benaroya, Rabbi Varon has not only continued the tradition of training our youth in transmitting our liturgical treasures, his knowledge of our community has made him a much beloved and revered figure.
In 2013, Rabbi Benjamin Hassan became the spiritual leader of SBH. Rabbi Hassan, originally from Manchester, England came to us from Melbourne, Australia. Over the past 7 years he and his wife Rubissa Sharona have brought excitement and engagement to our congregation especially with young families. Rabbi Hassan has established a reputation for always being there for his members and he has added many innovative programs. The Rabbi and Rubissa have an open home entertaining every Shabbat and Holiday. Rubissa Sharona runs all the SBH youth programs. Rabbi Hassan teaches at the Seattle Hebrew Academy and serves as a dayan on the Seattle Beit Din.
Today, Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation is vibrant and bustling with activity. There is a daily minyan, programs for seniors and youth, and numerous social functions. There are many separate classes being held on every Shabbat afternoon, many conducted by our lay members. The Ladies Auxiliary is as strong as ever. Attendance at services is strong and it is with a great degree of optimism that we rise to accept the challenges that the future may bring.
We proudly and fondly reflect on the accomplishments of our founders and know that the Hand of the Almighty was guiding their actions. Our synagogue today represents the realization of their visions and dreams. We look forward to a future as promising and as bright as the Seattle sky on the day that Solomon Calvo and Jacob Policar took their first steps “off the boat”.