An Account of the Origins of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture

"There is never a beginning and an end to an era. One is a continuation of the other."
--Albert Matarasso, 1889 - 1971

Although elements of the Sephardic community began to disperse by the late 1940's it wasn't until several decades later that an interest in our cultural roots began to surface. This cultural awareness, coupled with a rather extraordinary event, destined to ignite the spark that would create the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.


It began in the early part of the 1960's when many former students of Professor Maír José Benardete began a movement to honor him on the occasion of his retirement from the teaching profession. For well over forty years Benardete, a noted Sephardic scholar and professor of Spanish, had taught in the city colleges in New York. His academic success, especially in the field of Spanish-Jewish literature and culture, was renowned. As a monument to his scholarship, his students planned a testimonial dinner and hoped to publish a book as a tribute containing scholarly writings by colleagues, former students and friends.

Funding was desperately needed for the publication and yet only a few Sephardim were aware of this. In March 1963, an interesting and colorful profile of Professor Benardete by a former student, appeared in a publication called La Voz. The review was dedicated to Prof. Benardete and contained an appeal for funds for the publication of the book.

At the same time, the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America had invited a former president, and leading Sephardic writer, David N. Barocas, to speak on the occasion of the presentation of their scholarship awards. Barocas, who was aware of Benardete's retirement, chose as the central theme of his speech "Our Neglected Scholars." In his talk Barocas lamented sadly how some five or six Sephardic scholars - scholars of long standing who had steadfastly dedicated their lives to the preservation, perpetuation and advancement of Sephardic culture - were completely neglected and ignored, and it was found to be most difficult to raise money in order to honor one of them.

One of those present, Louis N. Levy, a Sephardic businessman, approached Barocas at the close of the ceremonies and offered his services. Levy set out to acquire as many copies of the La Voz review as he could and distributed them among many of the more prominent Sephardim. The distribution of the article was soon followed by a letter, signed by Barocas and Levy, asking for contributions. A considerable sum was ultimately raised and contributed towards the dinner and the publication.

The dinner committee expected that perhaps only sixty or seventy guests would attend, but as the date approached more people became anxious to share in the festivities of the event, and the number of reservations rose to over three hundred. The occasion ultimately became an historically noteworthy event - never before in the history of Sephardic life in America had any one of their own been honored for academic achievement. The testimonial dinner and the presentation of the book took place on Sunday, November 21, 1965, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Those who came to honor this outstanding Sephardic academician of the twentieth century included relatives, friends, colleagues from the faculties of many colleges and a great number of his former students. A former student, Sam Levenson, hosted the evening, and David Barocas himself spoke on the Sephardic Community of New York. In a stirring climax, Barocas presented Professor Benardete with the memorial volume: 'Studies in Honor of M.J. Benardete.'

This impressive and unforgettable event was also one of momentous consequence, for it served to stimulate the idea of continued collaboration in the field of Sephardic studies. After the memorial tribute, Barocas and Levy agreed to establish a committee, with the goal of further advancing Sephardic studies and culture in their own times. And so it was, that the Committee for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture was created in 1965, under the auspices and guidance of David N. Barocas, Louis N. Levy and Professor M.J. Benardete.


For a short time thereafter, Levy and Barocas, along with Prof. Benardete, began to publish and to put into circulation among the Sephardim of New York, as well as among many Sephardic congregations around the world, articles and pamphlets of interest. These were produced mostly at their own expense and under the auspices of the Committee.

Together, they raised funds to send Victor Laredo, an acclaimed photographer of international accord, to Spain to photograph the Juderías - the old Jewish quarters - in the principal cities of Spain. Laredo's work was then featured in the 1967 photographic exhibition 'Sephardic Spain' which was held at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The exhibit was sponsored by the Committee, conceived and directed by Prof. M.J. Benardete. The exhibition was subsequently featured on CBS Television's, 'Look Up and Live' program about Sephardic Spain in 1968, and Yeshiva University's first Sephardic Cultural Festival on January 26, 1969 and again at their Sephardic Heritage Award Dinner held at the Plaza Hotel on May 25, 1969.

Shortly afterwards, Barocas, Levy and Benardete called upon four other interested parties to join in the incorporation of this Committee, and in 1969 officially established the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. Those invited to join in this venture were Ralph Matalon, an attorney, David E. Rousso, a businessman, Albert J. Hasson, a certified public accountant, and Daniel Matarasso, an insurance executive. Barocas and Levy continued to remain the driving force behind the search for their Sephardic cultural roots, creating what many were to later call 'a new era of Sephardic enlightenment.'

The Foundation's initial plan had been to acquire a building to serve as a 'Bibliotheca Sefardia' - a house of study with a library and archives where the younger Sephardic generation could steep themselves in "our history, our religion, our poetry, our philosophy and all the other excellencies our ancestors achieved for over a thousand years" in the hopes that it would encourage the Sephardic youth to continue the tradition."

It soon became evident that the enormous funds for such an ambitious project were unobtainable, and the Foundation devoted its energy and resources to the continued task of publishing tracts and monographs on a variety of topics. The literary and scholarly aspects of these publications, published under severe financial constraints, surpassed anything which the American Sephardim had seen before. In the process they brought to public light numerous aspects of our Sephardic culture, religion language, history and community activities.

These publications, as well as the endless pleas and correspondence conducted by Barocas and Levy, aroused the interest not only of Sephardic intellectuals in the U.S. and overseas, but also many Ashkenazi and non-Jewish scholars. Candidates for academic degrees in related fields requested and received every possible assistance, the correspondence and materials handled personally by Levy himself.

In between publications, the Foundation also sponsored works by such noted Sephardic authors as Rabbi Marc Angel and the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. When Rabbi Kaplan approached David Barocas and the Foundation with his intent to publish the first English translation of the great Sephardic treatises, Me'Am Lo'ez, the Foundation stepped in, offering advice, support and translations.

The Foundation continued to co-sponsor events and publications throughout the New York area, assisting Yeshiva University with their Sephardic Community Activities Program and co-sponsoring some early publications of their Sephardic Studies Program. The Foundation also encouraged the progress of the American Society of Sephardic Studies and such up-and-coming Sephardic authors as Professor Rachel Dalven, David F. Altabe, Walter Weicker, Isaac Jack Levy, Joseph Papo, Victor Laredo, Rachel Amado Bortnick, Diane Matza, Vicki Tamir and Judith Misrachi.

Through the Foundation, Levy, Barocas and Benardete, along with Rabbi Angel, were able to create in 1978, Sephardic House at Congregation Shearith Israel, an independent institution initially created to fulfill Levy's 'house of study' ideals. Many years later Mr. Levy and Albert Amateau similarly founded the American Association of Jewish Friends of Turkey with the support of many of those Levy and Barocas had inspired throughout the years.

Unfortunately, while the work of the Foundation was being hailed by many community leaders, scholars and writers, it was evident that little attention was paid by the general Sephardic population. Financial and moral support continued to be received, but only from a handful of affluent people. David Barocas wrote as early as 1971 of their predicament:

"We in the Foundation feel as though we are moving in a threatening storm. Darkness is everywhere. Winds howl. Rains come in a downpour. We have storm lanterns which we swing madly to see whether our dim lights penetrate the darkness."

Despite the seeming apathy, they persevered in their attempts to eliminate what they called "the deep rooted cultural neglect and apathy of the Sephardim," in the hope they could reawaken a sense of cultural and social responsibility. While many individuals stood on the sidelines, David Barocas and Louis Levy, in a quiet, humble and tireless way, created an important body of material dealing with Sephardic history and culture. And yet, what was extremely difficult for these two men to accept was the knowledge that in addition to their financial limitations, individuals lacking the necessary knowledge and experience in the field of Sephardic history and culture were beginning to fill the vacuum of Sephardic studies.

The Foundation set on a new course, and began to urge the Sephardim at large that it was time for Sephardic scholars "to assume responsible leadership in discrediting the works of writers who profess to be authorities on our culture and tradition." Emphasis was placed on bilingual texts of immortal Sephardic classics, advocating Sephardic scholars to edit and write introductions for such works. "The Sephardim are the ones who need it most; they are the ones to be influenced by it; they are the guardians of their culture and the ones to transmit it to posterity. A renewed flurry of monographs and correspondence followed, criticizing and refuting works, articles and texts which they felt sought to mislead or misrepresent Sephardic heritage and culture. A particular issue was the sensationalist book The Grandees, which had reached the best seller list, but which had completely misrepresented both Sephardic life and heritage in the United States. A scathing critique and review of the book by Barocas, Benardete and Angel was quickly issued, and was distributed in published form.

Barocas continued to write and edit a number of tracts, and was working on the English translation of the difficult Pirke Avoth portion of the Me'am Lo'ez, up until his death in 1978. For some years, Rabbi Angel continued to follow in his footsteps, editing the several books and publications which were issued by the Foundation. In 1980, they published a memorial volume dedicated to the memory of David N. Barocas, with contributing material by many of the leading writers and scholars, he had helped and inspired over the years.

As the older Sephardic generation slowly disappeared, Levy occupied himself with his continued correspondence, co-sponsoring activities and encouraging a new generation of writers and scholars, who were eager to explore and understand their Sephardic heritage and roots. By the early 1990's Levy was actively involved in many of the Quincentennial commemorations on the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews and their arrival in the Ottoman lands. He divided his time between the Foundation and his newly created American Association of Jewish Friends of Turkey, and worked untiringly in his efforts to raise funding and awareness for many of the new Sephardic organizations and their activities.

In 1994, with the untimely death of Louis N. Levy, the Foundation saw the last of its founders pass from the scene. But the encouragement and inspiration that the original founders sought were successfully instilled within many who saw in Levy, Barocas and Benardete, the embodiment of the cultural renaissance of Sephardic studies of the last decades of the twentieth century. Since then, the Foundation has passed on to a new generation of dedicated leaders, former officers of the Foundation and members of the Sephardic community, who have been as passionately active and involved in preserving and protecting our Sephardic heritage and culture.


For nearly 40 years, the Foundation has been dedicated to preserving and promoting the complex and centuries-old culture of the Sephardic communities of Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Europe and the United States.

As we enter a new era, the Foundation continues to vigorously renew and preserve the rich heritage, culture and legacy of our ancestors. With extensive archives gathered over the decades from numerous sources, including early leaders of the Sephardic communities, the Foundation has been able to produce, support and enrich numerous research projects and published works. Local community and organization events are sponsored and new documentaries and presentations on Sephardic life and culture are prepared and exhibited across the country. Older publications are being reissued in English, and new works continue to be published, including a series of memorial volumes dedicated to Sephardic communities and cultures destroyed in the Holocaust. The long list of publications, presentations and exhibitions attest to the enrichment of Spanish Jewish culture in our times.

Thus, the mission of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture remains essentially the same some four decades after its founding: To encourage the appreciation and understanding of the Sephardic heritage, language and experience, in an effort to preserve and document it for future generations, before it disappears forever.

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