President of education center preaches moderation

By David R. Cohen | david@atljewishtimes.com

Neil Sheff HS

Neil Sheff

Neil Sheff, the international president of the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem, visited Atlanta on May 2 to speak at Congregation Or VeShalom. His trip had two purposes: recruiting high school students for summer programming and spreading awareness of the worldwide Sephardic community.

Sheff talked to the Atlanta Jewish Times about the Sephardic way of life, continuity in the United States and his trip to Atlanta.

AJT: What’s behind your trip to Atlanta?

Sheff: Atlanta has one of the largest Sephardic communities in the United States, and we have had ties here for many years. So I’m going to Atlanta to hopefully recruit some young high school kids for our summer programs going on in Israel. It’s important not only for the Sephardic community to realize that they belong to a worldwide movement, but also for Ashkenazi organizations to understand the message that the Sephardic philosophy brings to the table, which is coexistence, tolerance and moderation over extremism.

 

AJT: Tell me more about the Sephardic way of life.

Sheff: Well, it’s a feeling that Judaism should have a positive impact on your life and that you can have a personal relationship with G-d regardless of your religious knowledge or background. We believe in the rabbi as a teacher, not a preacher, and in that way we are not as judgmental on our fellow man and fellow Jew. I think it’s an optimistic, open-minded approach.

 

AJT: What is the current landscape of Sephardic communities in the United States?

Sheff: The Or VeShalom synagogue is one of the oldest and still one of the main Sephardic synagogues in the United States, especially of Jews from the island of Rhodes, which is where my family comes from. We are now left with basically Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles. L.A. once had a synagogue of Jews from Rhodes, but now that has merged with a congregation of Turkish and Persian Jews.

 

Neil Sheff Award

Neil Sheff (left) presents the lifetime achievement award to Yehoram Gaon (right) at the 2014 Sephardic Film Festival.

AJT: Just what is Or VeShalom’s connection with the island of Rhodes?

Sheff: I happen to be a grandson of immigrants from the island of Rhodes, and Or VeShalom was founded by immigrants from there. If you know anything about Jews from the island of Rhodes, they’re all related to each other or know each other’s families somehow. I grew up in Los Angeles, but many of my family’s relatives are here in Atlanta. My grandmother’s last name was Benator, and Atlanta is full of Benators. We’re all connected in that way.

 

AJT: You founded the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival (www.sephardicfilmfestival.com) in 1997. Tell me about how it started.

Sheff: A number of years ago we realized that fundraisers where you get a rubber-chicken dinner and hear a lot of speeches are boring and people don’t like to go to them. As a Jewish organization we needed to have fundraisers, so I thought about doing something a little bit different, like a film screening about the Sephardic experience, and maybe have sponsors. We tried it one year, and it worked, and we did it the next year and the next year after that. Soon we had to do it every other year because it got a little too big for us. It’s now our major fundraiser, but it’s also a major cultural event in Los Angeles. It’s interesting to find out that now Atlanta has taken over San Francisco as the largest Jewish film festival because I’d like to introduce our festival there and maybe have a festival within a festival.