Sephardic phenom cantor ready for Bay Area debut

Congregation Anshey Sfard’s newly hired cantor, Avyatar Alfassi, boasts an impressive résumé: several years chanting Torah with his home synagogue in Tiberias, Israel; five years with Congregation Mogen David in Rockville, Md.; two years with Atlanta’s Congregation Or VeShalom.

Not bad for someone who doesn’t even turn 24 until next month.

Wunderkind or not, Alfassi has developed into a seasoned chazzan, with the haunting Jewish melodies of Morocco (known as the ta’amin style) as his specialty. That, plus his youthful energy, drew him to the San Francisco Sephardic Orthodox congregation, and its members to him.

He arrives in town next week to an official welcome, just in time for the High Holy Days.

“I felt that’s where I should be,” says Alfassi by phone, a few days before he comes to the Bay Area. “I had a few places I went to do interviews, but the only place I felt I belonged was Anshey Sfard. The culture is very similar to how I grew up. It reminds me of home.”

Founded in 1898, the 100-member congregation had struggled in recent years to attract younger Jews. But that has begun to turn around. David Abecassis, the congregation’s vice president, notes that at least a quarter of the membership is under 40, with several young couples (and their kids) leading the way.

“We hope he will be the face of the synagogue and attract the community,” Abecassis says. “Being that he’s young and hip, I think it’ll be fine.”

Adds board member Raul Isaac, “We wanted the right person. Once I heard his voice and looked at his résumé, it was a no-brainer. In every congregation you have leaders and dominant forces. He’ll be the spiritual leader.”

It would seem Alfassi was born to do this. The oldest son of Moroccan-born Israeli Jews, he grew up steeped in the melodies and traditions of North African Sephardic Judaism. By age 8, elders in his Tiberias synagogue were letting him chant Torah.

He liked it. A lot.

“From then on until my bar mitzvah I kept doing it every Shabbat,” he recalls. “Then when I was 15 this Moroccan synagogue hired me as their chazzan. I didn’t even realize what I was doing. In Israel people don’t make a career out of it.”

But he did. At age 17, while visiting family in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Rockville, Md., Alfassi visited the local lay-led Sephardic synagogue. With his experience, he had no trouble leading services.

“The president of the synagogue went to my father and asked him, ‘Where is your son’s passport? Give it to me. He’s not going back.’ I agreed to stay for a few months, then it became my job.”

Even though he was approaching his mandatory Israeli army service, his new Maryland congregation worked to keep him in the United States. Members wrote to Israeli government and military officials, persuading them that Alfassi would best serve Israel and the Jewish people by chanting Torah just outside the Beltway.

He stayed on for five years before relocating to an Atlanta synagogue.

After so many years in America, Alfassi has picked up on the many differences between the Jewish communities in Israel and here.

One big difference, he says, is that “in Israel, there’s no ‘community.’ People just go to a synagogue, they come when it starts and leave when it ends, sometimes before it ends. In America, people come from all over. [The synagogue] is the place where Jewish people meet. Otherwise where are they going to socialize?”

Alfassi’s supporters at Anshey Sfard look forward to the new cantor’s arrival. Isaac believes his presence will have an immediate impact.

“People love to hear a chazzan that knows how to read Torah in an authentic way,” he says. “People are seeking something real. We’re looking to attract people to the Orthodox way.”

As for Alfassi, making his career so far from home has some drawbacks. He does miss his family in Israel. He even once told his mother that he would someday return. But now he’s not so sure.

“If you ask me, I feel like I should be in this community,” he says. “I feel God sent me, and I feel I belong here.”

An inaugural Shabbat celebration to welcome Cantor Avyatar Alfassi takes place the evening of Sept. 13 at Congregation Anshey Sfard, 1500 Clement St., S.F. Information: (415) 668-6178.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at