Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is a Sephardic Congregation founded by immigrants from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes. The Synagogue holds fast to the traditions of our home Island, fastidiously maintaining the liturgy and customs of the Rhodes tradition.
The first of our congregation to make the journey from Greek Island of Rhodes to Seattle was Nessim Alhadeff, (1904). Within three years all of his brothers and many others followed him. By 1909 the first steps at formal organization were taken. Moved by the leadership of Haim DeLeon the original group of Rhodeslis formed, (Succoth 1909) the Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes (the fund for the aid of the poor, people of Rhodes) - with Solomon Alhadeff as president, Nessim AIhadeff as treasurer and Harry Franco as secretary. Funds were raised from within the group and were sent to the needy Jewish community of Rhodes.
This forerunner of our congregation was not long lived in its original form. By 1912 some disputes on procedural matters erupted, two factions developed and a split occurred. One group with David J. Israel as president and Reuben AIkana as secretary retained the original name, while the other group with Nessim Alhadeff as president, Ed Tarica as treasurer and Harry Franco as secretary took the name Achduth (unity). In order to divide the assets to the satisfaction of all concerned, they invited Rabbi Samuel Koch of Temple De-Hirsch to serve as mediator. The meeting was held at the home of Asher Cohen.
The Rabbi managed to achieve a more positive result, however, for he prevailed upon the small group to reunite (1912), now under the name of Koupa Ezra Bessaroth of Rhodes. The name Ezra Bessaroth (a help in time of need) - is based on a verse in Psalms (46: 2) G-d is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble."
Marco Franco was elected president of this reunited group. Articles of incorporation were filed in June 19,1914, dues were set at 25 cents a month.
In the earliest years holiday services were held in rented halls, first at Ninth and Yesler and later at Washington Hall (see photo right). Haim DeLeon and Behor Morris Scharhon used to lead the services.
In 1915 two lots were purchased on the corner of Fifteenth and East Fir Street for about $7,000.00. For the high holy-days of 1916, Washington Hall was again rented. However, late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, before the services were ended, the worshippers were forced to vacate the hall to make room for some other group that had engaged the hall for a dance that evening. This disruption determined the group in its resolve to be in its own home by the next Yom Kippur.
It was estimated that it would cost between $15,000 - $17,000 to build the synagogue. The members, (close to one hundred) made their pledges, but it was soon apparent that ways and means would have to be found to raise the substantial balance. A bazaar was planned and Mr. David Lipman consented to serve as chairman. The group was most fortunate in the cooperation offered by Mr. Lipman for he enlisted the aid and the experience of many members of Temple De-Hirsch, particularly the ladies who collected merchandise and organized themselves into shifts to guard it. The net result of the bazaar, dance and sale of baked goods, was $5,000.00. This additional sum made it possible to proceed with actual construction. Dr. Harry S. Tarica was construction chairman, Solomon AIhadeff was president and Sadick Angel was treasurer. All of the early pioneers were most active in all phases of the project.
At last the dedication of the new synagogue took place with Rabbi Koch doing the honors of the occasion. Haim DeLeon represented the congregation as Hazzan.
The new Ezra Bessaroth was the first building in Seattle to be built under Sephardic communal auspices. Dr. Harry S. Tarica was construction chairman, Solomon Alhadeff was president and Sadick Angel was treasurer. All of the early pioneers were most active in all phases of the project. A little known fact is that the annual Ezra Bessaroth Purim Bazaar was initiated as a fund-raiser for this new structure. The new building was beautiful by any standard. All the walls of the sanctuary were covered with canvas and hand painted by a Mr. Moshkin, with ornate Middle Eastern style designs (see photo in right column). Above the Aron was a beautiful stained glass window. This very same window is now on display outside the sanctuary of our current Synagogue. There was one classroom upstairs and one classroom downstairs. There was a very small kitchen. The infamous Washington hall was used for weddings and larger celebrations.
In the early years the small dedicated group rotated offices, but no record of the succession of officers existed. However, among the early presidents were: Solomon Alhadeff, Marco Franco, Dr. Harry S. Tarica, Behor AIhadeff, Jacob DeLeon, David Mosafer, Nessim Alhadeff, Harry Franco, Dr. Issac Mossafer, Nessim Peha, Behor Rahamim Galanti and others.
The early years may be thought of as the period from 1904 through the first World War. Following the war immigration resumed and continued in full force until the restrictive changes in the immigration laws about 1924. A very few arrived thereafter.
From 1912 - 1915 many of the congregants had their homes on 12th avenue south from Jackson to Yesler and atop a steep bank on Washington Street. Then they all moved into the area extending from 14th avenue to 18th avenue and from Jackson Street to Jefferson Street. Their third move was up to 25th avenue and soon extended up to 32nd avenue, again between Jackson and Jefferson.
In the early days the women also organized them selves into an auxiliary. The first president was Leah Mossafer, followed by her daughter Bolissa Rose Franco. Among the early presidents were: Sarah Mossafer, Bulissa Esther Angel, Rose Alhadeff, Serena Cohen and others.
At that time social life centered about the synagogue and the group lived close together in their own neighborhood in what is known the Central Area of Seattle. In addition to the religious and life cycle events that are the center of communal life, the congregants also turned to one another for social and cultural events. Many plays were performed by and for the community (usually in Ladino) up until World War II. As early as 1914 Mr. Morris Hanan translated a Molier comedy into Ladino and it was staged with members of the community as the cast. In the early years Mr. Leon Behar wrote and directed a number of plays, among them, the Dreyfus Affair in March of 1922, Joseph and His Brothers in July 1922, Love and Religion in March 1927 and others.
In 1927 Henry Benezra became president of SBH with the central purpose of amalgamating the Sephardic synagogues. He and like-minded members convinced the SBH board to approach Ezra Bessaroth on the issue of amalgamation. For more than half a year discussions led by Mr. Benezra and Jack Caston continued with members of Ezra Bessaroth, but at the end the majority of members of Ezra Bessaroth weren't willing to merge on an equal basis. Nevertheless, the idea of amalgamation within the Sephardic community was a powerful one, and was championed by people both inside and outside of the Sephardic community. It continued to be discussed in meetings of the SPF for the next few years, and numerous letters on this pivotal topic appeared in the pages of the Seattle Transcript, the Jewish newspaper of Seattle. As late as 1932 an editorial in the Seattle Transcript urged amalgamation.
In 1918 The Rev. David J. Behar, known to the community as Chacham Behar, consented to serve "only temporarily" as Hazzan. However, this fortunate match found favor in the eyes of all parties and lasted for over a half a century. At a time when much of the Jewish community was straying from their roots, Reverend Behar strived to assure that Ezra Bessaroth remained faithful to its time honored traditions. Rev. Behar assumed the burden of spiritual and communal leadership alone until the arrival of Rabbi Isidore Kahan in 1939.
On April 25, 1939 Rabbi Isidore Kahan arrived in Seattle with his wife and two daughters to serve as Rabbi for both Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Holim. Rabbi Kahan would alternate between the two synagogues-one Shabbat at Sephardic Bikur Holim and the next at Ezra Bessaroth. It was the stated goal that this venture was to be the prelude to the merging of the two sister congregations. Within a very short period the cooperative nature of the venture between the two Sephardic Congregations dissolved and Rabbi Kahan continued to serve as the Rabbi of congregation Ezra Bessaroth. Rabbi Kahan had an excellent rabbinic training in Europe and was a man of great education, holding a doctorate in Jurisprudence from the University of Zurich. Rabbi Kahan served our congregation until his retirement in 1959, he passed away on Succoth 1961.
In the early 1930's the Sephardic congregations consolidated their schools into the Sephardic Religious School and Albert Levy of New Yerk was brought in' to head the school. Mr. levy returned to New York in Novem-bar of 1934, and the school continued with Reverend Behar and Scharhon as staff. In 1938 Mr. Levy returned and joined the staff. In the late 1940's the school was dissolved and Rev. Behar continued to provide instruction for our children in his own private school.
The first Rhodesli burials were in the Herzl Cemetery. When the Sephardic Bikur Holim purchased burial ground near Washelli an arrangement was made whereby gravesites were sold to Ezra Bessaroth members as the need arose. In 1920 a subsidiary group of the Ezra Bessaroth was formed called Ahavath Shalom also known as Sociedad De Huevos. In 1933 this group under the leadership of Zadik Angel, Jacob DeLeon, Behor Solam, Mike AIkana and Rev. Behar purchased cemetery ground (presently the Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery.)
The Sephardic Brotherhood was formed through an amalgamation (1935) of the Sephardic Progressive Fraternity, the Shalom Aleichem and the Ahavath Shalom - three social groups of the Sephardic community of Seattle.
As the inner city location of The Ezra Bessaroth community began to deteriorate in the mid- 1950ís, many of our congregants began to move elsewhere. Seeing the possible dispersion of this tight knit community, the Congregations leaders acted early and acted fast. A spirited meeting of the membership was held at the Leschi-based Corinthian Yacht club in 1956. The meeting was to discuss the merits and drawbacks of relocating the community. Many of our more mature members can still recall Reverend Beharís impassioned plea at that meeting of the necessity of moving to Seward Park.
Several years ahead of its two sister congregations, Ezra Bessaroth purchased land for a new building in the lakeside neighborhood of Seward Park. With the foresight of such men as Rev. David J. Behar and Ness J. Peha, most of the congregation had relocated to Seward Park by the time of the dedication of our new building on August 17th 1958. View a video from the dedication by clicking this hyper link.
The new building was a two-phase project. First an all purpose Social hall and religious school was to be built (1957) and only later (1969) would a separate Sanctuary be constructed. Many baby boomers can recall when later services were conducted in what is now the Social Hall. In fact the kitchen freezer of our current building sits where the Midrash of Phase I once stood.
In 1955 under the presidential leadership of Ralph Benaroya, the Ezra Bessaroth Young Mens Club was founded with Joseph D. Peha as president. The purpose of this club was to train young men (ages 18-39) for future synagogue leadership, "to cooperate with the Congregation Ezra Bessaroth in stimulating Jewish Religion activities; to foster cultural and educational advancement among its membership and the Jewish people at large; and to promote through social intercourse the spirit of comradeship among its members." Social and youth activities were their specific area of responsibility. The club continued in existence until the start of the building campaign for the current sanctuary.
After the retirement of Rabbi Kahan in May of 1959, Rabbi Abraham Shalem was appointed as the congregation's new Rabbi. Rabbi Shalem served the congregation for three and a half years. Rabbi Shalem vacated his position at Ezra Bessaroth after Congregation Mount Sinai in Mexico City asked for his services as Rabbi and member of the Beth Din of that city, An office which he occupied for fourteen years, until 1977. Rabbi Shalem currently resides in Jerusalem, where he is a well known and respected Chaham. (A special thanks to Mo Stoltzman, nephew of Rabbi Shalem, who helped update this section)
In September of 1962 Rabbi William Greenberg assumed the pulpit of Ezra Bessaroth where he served admirably until his retirement in 1990. Rabbi Greenberg dazzled the congregation with his remarkable and inspiring sermons. He was a pioneer teacher at the Northwest Yeshiva High School and established several adult learning programs in Seattle. A parent of four, the congregation delighted in watching Sara, Donny, Dena, and Aryeh grow up before our eyes. A warm highlight of Rabbi Greenbergís tenure was the many Pesah and Succot Kiddushim hosted by the Rabbi and his wife Rosa over the years. Rabbi Greenberg continued to serve the Congregation as our Rabbi Emeritus and is an honored and well-respected community leader after his retirement in 1990. Rabbi Greenberg passed away on May 31, 2007 (14 Sivan, 5767). In a remarkable display of the respect and love he so deservedly earned from the community, his memorial service in the Ezra Bessaroth sanctuary was standing room only, with all of the major Seattle Rabbis and community leaders in attendance.
In the early 1960's Rev. Behar expressed a desire to retire as primary Hazzan in June of 1965, Robert J. Franco contacted a young Seattle talent by the name of Isaac Azose. It took much urging and persuasion to convince young Isaac to try out as Hazzan during the upcoming high holiday services of 1965.Hazzan Azose was subsequently hired on a full time basis by the congregation in march 1966. It must be said here that our congregation has been truly blessed by Hazzan Azose's magnificent voice and kindhearted presence over these past 33 years. This historian would be remiss not to mention Hazzan Azose's wife, Lily (A"H). Her incredible hospitality, scrumptious cooking and delightful personality has made our community and synagogue a better place. It was with much sadness that the congregation received Hazzan Azose's announcement of his intention to retire in 2000.
Construction of our current Sanctuary (Phase II) began in 1968 with Mrs. Rosa Berro performing the ground breaking on August 25th of that year. The members of Ezra Bessaroth were bursting with pride and appreciation to the almighty as our Sanctuary was dedicated in September of 1970.
A congregation cannot function without its Gabbai. Ezra Bessaroth has had six Gabbaim over the years. Hermano Sadik Angel, Bohor David Solam, Bohor Ephraim Shemaria, Rahamim Alhadeff, Elazar D. Behar and Norman Behar. Elazar began serving as assistant gabbai after he left the Navy in 1946. This means that Elazar has been serving our congregation uninterrupted (and as a volunteer!) for well over 50 years. Elazar retired in 2000 becoming our Gabbai Emeritus.
Understanding that our future is in the hands of our youth, in the early 1970ís the congregation hired its first salaried youth director, Rabbi David Angel. With the advent of The Reverend David J. Behar Youth Program in the late 1970's our youth program has thrived. Other youth directors of note were Norman Goldwasser, Richard Okrent, Lea Behar Hanan, Erin Rabinowitz, Naomi Behar Solam, Rabbi Benjamin Owen, Rabbi Yossi Azose, Elana Okrent, Bnai Akiva, Natalie Sakavi and currently Rochelle Romano.
Rabbi Yamin Levy (along with his wife D'vorah and their lovely children) was retained as the spiritual leader of our Congregation from 1990 through 2000. With his youthful energy and inspiring leadership the Congregation has grown both in size and spirit. It was under Rabbi Levy's direction that the congregation adopted a family from Tashkent, Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. Little did we know that this noble gesture would be the beginnings of a significant Bukharian community in our congregation. Ongoing Jewish education projects (The David H. Alhadeff Institute of Torah Study); a premiere youth program and effective outreach efforts swelled the numbers of our membership in this decade. A new excitement and vibrancy was the mark of Ezra Bessaroth in the 1990's.
Our kehila retained Rabbi Salomon Cohen-Scali (from Barcelona, Spain) in the Fall of 2001. The Rabbi brought with him his lovely wife Raquel along with children Esther, Mercedes, Samuel, Moshe Chayim and Miriam. Rabbi Cohen-Scali refocused the Congregation on our spiritual roots while building ever stronger ties with the State of Israel. Rabbi Cohen-Scali completed his service to our congregation in December of 2009 moving with his family to the East Coast of the United States.
A series of milestone events marked the celebration of our congregation's centennial year in 2010. Most notably was the dedication of the Franco Family Courtyard. A mosaic platform inspired by the unique tiling on the floor of the Kahal Shalom synagogue in Rhodes was installed in the remodeled courtyard as was a stunning replica of the Rhodes Holocaust monument. Lectures by Rabbi Marc Angel and Dr. Aron Rodrigue culminated in an historic gala celebration at the Meydenbauer Center on August 22nd, 2010.
The search for a new Spiritual Leader (since the departure of Rabbi Cohen-Scali) continued through the Summer of 2011. Rabbi Frank Varon assisted the congregation with life cycle events while lay membership (Jordan Assouline, Steven Younker and Steven Hemmat among others) provided engaging sermons during Shabbat services. In the Winter of 2011 Rabbi Benjy Owen joined Rabbi Varon as an interim Rabbi. Rabbi Owen took over the task of providing sermons during Shabbat services and also offered a popular Shabbat afternoon class on the weekly reading of the Haftorah.
Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers commenced his service as our spiritual leader on August 1st of 2011. Rabbi Meyers and Rubisa Miriam have ten beautiful children, five boys and five girls. We look forward to joining with Rabbi Meyers and Rubisa Miriam in growing our community in wonderful ways.
This page is an ongoing project that will grow and evolve with time. It is an interactive site and Congregants are encouraged to E-mail us with their own personal recollections, photos and anecdotes about our beloved Synagogue to be included in this feature.