Rabbi Tsipi Gabai is the leader of Congregation Zohar Yisrael, which held its monthly Friday night service in Berkeley, Nov. 8, 2019. (Courtesy Gabai)
Rabbi Tsipi Gabai is the leader of Congregation Zohar Yisrael, which held its monthly Friday night service in Berkeley, Nov. 8, 2019. (Courtesy Gabai)

I was in a strange, new world: Egalitarian Sephardi Shabbat

An egalitarian Sephardi service is a rare thing, a complete novelty to me when I dropped in on the first installment of Congregation Zohar Yisrael, a new monthly Friday night service in Berkeley, on Nov. 8.

The service used tunes and traditions from Sephardi Jewry, but men and women sat together, names of matriarchs such as Sarah were invoked, and it was led by a woman, Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, the descendant of a long line of Moroccan rabbis.

The gathering drew about 60 worshippers who clapped along and gamely tried to catch on to Moroccan and Andalusian melodies, which can be hard to learn for ears steeped in Western music. Sephardi Jews are those descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain, mostly during the 15th century. There was once a large community of Sephardi Jews in Morocco. Today, most Moroccan-descended Jews live in Israel, with only about 2,000 remaining in Morocco.

The setting was a long, narrow, high-ceilinged chapel with a high altar at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church. Gabai led from a low table with challah and candles, adorned with a colorful tapestry, on ground level, close to attendees. After mild urging, everyone moved in close to the first few rows.

Gabai, who was the rabbi of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito until it closed last year, was getting over a cold and repeatedly apologized for her sore throat. “I sound like a frog,” she said. But no matter, her enthusiasm was not lacking. Undeterred, she sang plenty loud while nursing a throat lozenge, jumping up and down during some songs.

Attendees were of all ages — families with children, young adults, older adults. Some knew Gabai from Tehiyah or her annual Sephardi Yom Kippur service, which she has been leading in the East Bay in various forms since 1998. Others had heard about it through word-of-mouth, including a contingent of younger, indie-type 20s and 30s Jews I recognized from venues like Urban Adamah and Nigun Collective, including my friend, Binya Koatz.

Binya looked to be in on the planning, pouring small doses of Kiddush wine into tiny cups, lighting candles and singing and clapping with abandon. I asked Gabai how they knew each other. “Binya? I never met her before. But she was excited to come, so I said help me light candles. Her grandfather was born in Morocco. So good, we’re all related!”

Gabai chanted some prayers, such as Ma’ariv Aravim and Barchu, to the Moroccan nusach she learned from her father, Rabbi Yosef Gabbai, a Moroccan rabbi and one of the founders of the city of Ma’alot in Northern Israel. And some of the selections from Torah that make up the Ve’ahavta portion of the service were chanted to Moroccan Torah trope. Other portions were sung to Moroccan and other Sephardi tunes, helped along by a forceful hand drummer and a violin that added some sonic depth.

Before singing Yedid Nefesh, the piyut (liturgical poem) that begins the traditional Friday night service, Gabai emphasized that it was composed by a Sephardi Jew. “Sorry, Ashkenazim. All these piyutim are written by Sephardim,” she said to light chuckles.

Though I had a hard time catching on to the tune, it was a treat for me to attend a service where I didn’t know all of the music. Yet, when we reached Lecha Dodi, I was relieved to discover that one familiar tune for the signature Shabbat piyyut, commonly heard in many Ashkenazi synagogues in America, was itself Sephardi. Many of us knew it, and sang along with relish.

Gabai sang Hatzi Kaddish, an Aramaic-language prayer that marks the end of certain sections of the service, to a triumphant march of a tune. Unlike the Ashkenazi music one hears more often in American synagogues, Sephardi music isn’t all minor keys and plaintive yearning.

Don’t just look at me! Smile and sing and clap. I won’t forgive you if you don’t.

Mi Chamocha was a real banger, and not as tough to catch onto as others. “If you keep going to more Shabbats, you’ll pick up the tunes,” Gabai said, insistent but patient with our fumbling attempts to sing along. “Don’t just look at me! Smile and sing and clap. I won’t forgive you if you don’t.”

Though the music was all Sephardi, the setup was more akin to liberal American synagogues: Gabai faced the congregation and talked between almost every prayer.

Nevertheless, the subject of her interstitials was the Sephardi home and synagogue culture she grew up with. “Shabbat started in my house with piyyutim,” she said. “Many times in our community, they took the place of drashot [sermons]. They’d say, ‘No, no, Rabbi. No drashah today. We’ll sing.’”

Gabai told me that when she was 6, her father asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A rabbi, just like you!” — and like many generations of her family, on both sides.

“He said, ‘Women are not rabbis, but women can be teachers or professors, so you can grow up to do what rabbis do,’” she recalled.

But that wasn’t enough for Tsipi Gabai. She wanted to be Rabbi Tsipi Gabai. So, well into adulthood, she was ordained in 2003 at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a liberal non-denominational seminary in Los Angeles.

Egalitarian Sephardi services are uncommon, but after asking around, I’m happy to say that Gabai is not alone in this project. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley has its own Sephardi Kol Nidrei every year, which was started by … yes, Gabai. I also have found monthly egalitarian Sephardi services in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Seattle, Los Angeles and London, all of which began relatively recently. And now there is one more.

Gabai calls this project Congregation Zohar Yisrael, after her mother, Zohara. “I admired her,” Gabai told me. “I worshipped the ground she walked on. Magnificent, beautiful, warm, welcoming.”

Her father, Yosef, has a synagogue named after him in Israel, Ohel Yosef. Now, Gabai’s mother is remembered in the name of her own nascent congregation.

Gabai remembers her father as a warm and accepting man. He believed that each Jew’s practice and faith was between them and God. “Hopefully, he’s accepting what I’m doing, and he would be smiling to know that I am also honoring my mother with the name, Zohar Yisrael,” she told me.

The belief in a Sephardi Judaism with greater gender equality came to Gabai early. After Kiddush, at the end of the service, she mentioned a Moroccan tradition of invoking and inviting in the spirit of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham would be invited before Motzi, the blessing over the challah, on Friday night. Jacob would be invited on Shabbat morning. And Isaac on Shabbat afternoon.

But when she was young, Gabai told the congregation, she would quietly add “and Sarah!” Then, she was the only person who heard her whispered addition. But last Friday night, we all heard it.

To stay tuned for news about Gabai’s next monthly gathering, follow Zohar Yisrael on Facebook or check zoharyisrael.org. Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.