East Valley rabbi and CEO connects with his Sephardi side – Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

Posted By on September 16, 2022

As a kid in a small Jewish community in the northern Italian city of Milan, Rabbi Michael Beyo was steeped in Sephardi traditions. His father was born in Turkey, the country where his family had lived for 500 years after being expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. But when he stepped outside his home, Beyo was surrounded by the dominant Ashkenazi culture of his mother and his country.

For years he didnt question the prevalence of Ashkenazi Jews. But when he was 12, a teacher told him that if his Hebrew pronunciation was Sephardi, rather than Ashkenazi, God wouldnt hear his prayers.

He was a teacher, and I believed him, Beyo said.

A lot has changed in the years since for the CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, and recently, he was named one of the leadership fellows in the Sephardic Leadership Institutes (SLI) first national cohort. The program, intended to develop and support a network of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish professionals, will last six months.

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), a nonprofit located in Northern California, launched SLI this summer in an effort to connect North African and Middle Eastern Jewish professionals and increase their representation in Jewish organizations.

Beyo learned of the fellowship program and decided to apply, both as a way to network and to look for possible collaborations with the EVJCC.

And personally, it was intriguing.

Before he moved to Israel in his 20s where he would receive three rabbinical ordinations Beyos experience of the wider Jewish world was dominated by Ashkenazi Jews; whether in Italy, England (where he moved when he was 15) or France. Much later, when he moved to the United States, he would find the same was true here.

I studied in Ashkenazi schools and went to their yeshivot, he said. I only realized later that I had been deprived of my Sephardi heritage.

In Israel, he saw something new. Sephardi Jews there had started to assert themselves and their traditions in a kind of counter revolution. Young Sephardim were saying, Enough is enough! We want to celebrate our traditions, our foods, our music, Beyo said.

When you are in the system, you dont realize what they teach you is slanted in only one way, he said. Being in Israel helped me understand that 100%.

Beyo explained that in modern times, Sephardi Jews living in predominantly Ashkenazi communities have been discriminated against in one way or another.

Thats the reality, he said. Its true in Italy, and its true in America. It was also happening in Israel where discrimination against Sephardim was institutionalized.

Echoing his point, last month, Israels national statistical bureau decided to begin publishing data statistics on socioeconomic differences between Jews of Ashkenazi or European origins, and those of Mizrahi or North African and Middle Eastern origin, according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Historically, and to a significant extent still, Ashkenazi Jews have populated Israels upper class while Mizrahi Jews have been poorer as a whole, with discriminatory policies from Israels early years to blame for the inequality.

Countering that reality is one of the goals of JIMENA. It is giving Sephardi leaders tools to rediscover Sephardiness and assert itself against Ashkenormative life, Beyo said.

Personally, he feels pretty lucky to be part of both worlds. His Ashkenazi mother, a combination of Czech, Polish and Austrian Jewish ancestry, was born in Milan after World War II. Thus, Beyo feels comfortable in both environments, and he can make jokes about both, he quipped.

Comfort is one thing, but when it comes to his home, what he enjoys and how he understands the world, he is Sephardi.

The music I listen to is Sephardi, the food I eat is Sephardi and the way I understand Judaism is through the Sephardi traditional, historical approach to Judaism, he said.

He even attributes his ability to serve as both an Orthodox rabbi and the CEO of a JCC to his Sephardi heritage and outlook.

In the Sephardi world, he explained, there are no Reform or Conservative Jews, just Jews. Whether one keeps kosher or drives to services all Jews go to the same synagogue.

While a traditional Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbi might not be accepted as a JCC CEO, or feel comfortable there, Beyo is both at ease at the EVJCC and accepted.

I am not trying to make Reform Jews become Orthodox, he said. I try to help every Jew be the best Jew they want to be.

When he was awarded the fellowship, Beyo was surprised to find so many new organizations he didnt know existed and connecting with new people was really cool.

After having been around the block a few times, he admitted most of the topics are pretty familiar. Still, he said the work JIMENA is doing is amazing, and he appreciates every encounter and learning opportunity.

We can learn from everyone and we should learn from everyone and never stop learning, said Beyo. Its important to relate to Jews of different backgrounds in order to have more empathy and appreciation for the diverse reality of the American community and those of Phoenix and the East Valley.

Once you can appreciate diversity among one specific group, he said, its easier to appreciate it among others, as well. JN

For more information on the East Valley Jewish Community Center, visit evjcc.org.

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East Valley rabbi and CEO connects with his Sephardi side - Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

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