South Bay minyan celebrates Sephardic heritage at hiloula

It was more than just an evening of exquisite Moroccan dishes, a fund-raiser or a social event.

For some that attended the Bar Yohai Sefardic Minyan’s hiloula honoring second-century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale on May 16, it was an eye-opening experience.

“This is my first hiloula,” 17-year-old Helen Rahimzad said. “It’s really diverse here and there are many people from different countries.”

A hiloula, which is celebrated on Lag B’Omer, honors Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, one of the most eminent disciples of Rabbi Akiva. He is also said to have authored the Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah.

Bar Yohai’s death is said to have fallen on Lag B’Omer, and his life is commemorated on that day by singing and feasting as a community.

The Sunnyvale minyan was founded nearly 20 years ago by Eric Benhamou, former CEO of 3Com and Palm Inc., and Jean-Pierre Braun, CEO of Escalade software company. Growing from a small group to nearly 50 permanent families representing 15 different countries and traditions, its members are from such places as Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Libya and Egypt. Nearly two-thirds of the congregants are Sephardic, and one-third are Ashkenazi.

For Ashkenazi visitors such as Rahimzad, the celebration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was an exciting new cultural experience, which complemented the celebration of the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer.

For the Sephardic members of the community, the symbolism of the day is twofold. Besides celebrating Lag B’Omer — which commemorates a break in the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Talmudic era — some Sephardim use this day to honor the great rabbis of the past that have contributed to the Jewish heritage, said Aliza Aziz of Bar Yohai Minyan.

As families and friends nibbled on hummus, sipped wine and broke bread May 16, they also had the chance to remember some of the miracles that have occurred since the last hiloula.

Cupertino residents and Israel natives Yair and Sigal Arviv were one the couples that were there to celebrate answered prayers. The couple attended the hiloula of Bar Yohai a year ago. They purchased a candle with the photo of Talmudic-era Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, whose name means “master of the miracle.”

At the time of the last hiloula, the Arvivs were desperate for a child. They tried for two and a half years to have a baby, but had no luck. Three months after they bought the candle at the hiloula, Sigal became pregnant.

Sitting with the couple at the May 16 hiloula was their newborn, Geffen.

“Tonight is a big night, just sharing this blessing,” Yair Arviv said, after winning a bid at the hiloula’s live auction for a picture that he hopes will help improve his moving business. “When you are desperate enough, you will do anything.”

When the minyan was founded in the ’80s, founder Braun said that both he and Benamou, who attended the same synagogue in Grenoble, France, had identified the lack of a Sephardic community in the South Bay. They formed the minyan in the hope that it would combine a place to encourage traditional Sephardic values with the spirit of Silicon Valley.

One of the ways they preserve their Sephardic heritage is through traditional celebrations like the hiloula.

“It’s the only Sephardic community in the whole Bay Area,” said Rabbi Avi Mansura, who leads the minyan. “It’s a very warm community.”