Pennsylvania: Out of Egypt-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. 

(Justin Regan) It’s a Jewish tradition to leave rocks when visiting a person’s grave instead of flowers. I like that. It’s a very meaningful activity to go on a search for someone’s rock. This was the case during my road trip. I always planned to visit the graves of my great grandparents when I got to Philadelphia, so I was on the lookout for rocks wherever I went- not just any rocks but the right rocks. I finally found them on the shores of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Park. They both were smoothed and shiny from the water and I know my Great Grandmother liked the water. And Poppy, my Great Grandfather, his rock was a little more rough but had a nice worm color to it. So I carried these rocks for quite a while, almost as another totem of protection along with my car-zuzzah. Growing up, my Grandmom would tell me stories about when her family would go to Mount Sharon Cemetery on Rosh Hashanah and Mother’s Day to pray at the graves. As a kid, she would spend that time playing in the empty fields. When I visited in early November of 2018, those fields were full of graves. Almost on top of one another with many leaning over. It seemed sad and maybe a little forgotten. Many people in Mount Sharon are immigrants or first generation Americans. They fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe seeking a better life. Many of their kids, like my Grandmom, have moved on from the old neighborhoods of South Philly, spreading out and multiplying across the city and country. So maybe these beat up gravestones are really a solid foundation of something that’s still very much alive today. Rocks do not wither. They glisten when the rain comes down and can be packed with a myriad of shades and crystals and consistencies. You can find rocks anywhere but to find the rock takes time and energy. I think that adds a unique dimension, or positive charge, to the ones brought to graves. It’s not a cold, unfeeling stone on an old tomb. It’s placing a little bit of life back at its source.

Pennsylvania: Out of Egypt 

(Regan) The one thing I didn’t do on my road trip while in Philly was collect an interview. But I got another chance when I went back east in May for a family Bar Mitzvah. After all the mozeltovs and the reunions and Electric Slides I jumped in a rental car and drove from Boston to Baltimore in a day, making a pit stop in Philadelphia. I spoke to Albert Gabbai, the rabbi at what many consider to be the Synagogue of the American Revolution

(Rabbi Albert Gabbai) My name is Albert Gabbai. I am the Rabbi of congregation Mikveh Israel. It’s the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in Philadelphia, founded in 1740.

(Regan) Mikveh Israel is one of five congregations that pre-date the U.S. All of those were originally founded in the Sephardic tradition because it was primarily the Sephardim who were the first Jews to settle in America. Nowadays Mikveh Israel and Shearith Israel in New York are the only two of the original five still completely in the Sephardic tradition. As mentioned in previous episodes, the congregations in South Carolina and Georgia are now Reform and the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island has also taken on more Ashkenazi traditions, but remains Orthodox; a term many would use for Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. 

(Gabbai) We don’t call ourselves Orthodox even though we maintain the tradition as its been since the beginning to this day. Because at that time in 1740 there was no such label as called ‘Orthodox’. There was no other movements. Therefore there was no label. So we kept the tradition. And if people call us Orthodox. You call us what you want, we keep the tradition as is.  

(Regan) Gabbai says this commitment to tradition is so important he can only think of one major change in the last 300 years. 

(Gabbai) We no longer say a prayer for King George III.

(Regan) Mikve Israel gets the title Synagogue of the American Revolution because it was a place of refuge for many Jews during the war. A lot of the other synagogues and Jewish communities were in British controlled territory. That includes Shearith Israel in New York which, according to legend, was spared from the torches of red coats thanks to a Jewish Hessian soldier. One of Mikve Israel’s congregation members, Haym Salomon, is credited with playing a pivotal role in financing the American army during the war. Like many founding fathers, he also was a slaveholder. Over the years, congregation members have helped to form many organizations, like the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jewish Publication Society, American Jewish Committee and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Mikve Israel also founded and maintains the National Museum of American Jewish History, which side note: I can personally say is a great thing to do in Philly, especially when you can’t get into Independence Hall due to a lack of advanced planning. 

(Gabbai) This congregation has been a leader congregation. And also innovative. So they founded all of these organizations. So the basis was made when mass immigration of Jews came the foundation were already established by this congregation. Don’t forget the Jewish capitol of America in the 19th century was Philadelphia before it became New York in the 20th century. And therefore, everything started from Philadelphia. And therefore people look up to us to set an example. 

(Regan) In a lot of ways, Mikve Israel and the institutions it helped create have left an impression on many Jews in America. As for Philadelphia, well, that impressed Gabbai from a young age.

(Gabbai) When I was a kid, I had pictures of Philadelphia. Grass green, Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin. Very vivid in my mind those pictures. And I said ‘One day I’m going to go to Philadelphia. See what it is’.

(Regan) And it was quite a dream, seeing as Gabbai grew up on the other side of the planet in Egypt. 

(Gabbai) The community of Jews in Egypt was made up of Jews who came from different parts of the world particularly after the opening of the Suez canal. They came from France from Italy from Greece. From Morocco from Turkey from the land of Israel. And from Baghdad. I grew up in the main Synagogue in Cairo. It’s called Sha’ar Hashamayim, downtown. 

(Regan) Jews had a presence in Egypt since well before the common era. At times, it was actually a place of refuge, like when Alexander The Great conquered Judea or during the Spanish Inquisition. It was also the home of the legendary Talmudic scholar, philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon, also referred to as Maimonides or Rambam. But things changed in the 20th century. Gabbai stresses the point that he grew up in Egypt but is not an Egyptian Jew. That’s not just by personal preference: it’s actually legal. In 1929, the Jews of Egypt were stripped of their citizenship. 

(Gabbai) I grew up in Nasser Era. Which was very difficult for the Jews. Very difficult. Because of the fear of being tortured by the government just for being a Jew or being accused of being a quote unquote ‘Zionist spy’. So it was very difficult.

(Regan) Things got worse for the Jews of Egypt and other Arab countries with the creation of the modern state of Israel. After Israel declared independence in 1948, there were fatal bombings of Jewish sections of Egyptian cities and some Jews were detained and sent to prison camps. This was further inflamed with the fall of the Egyptian monarchy and the rise of the new leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his police state. 

(Gabbai) I went to Catholic school. And in school we had Jews and Christians and Muslims and Arabs and in the school we were absolutely together and there was no discrimination in the school. Outside the school you had to be very careful. You don’t show your Jewishness. You don’t talk about politics anything, none whatsoever and when you go to synagogue you look around make sure nobody is going to jump on you. And you go to synagogue and you go back home. Being observant was at home and the synagogue. But outside you never show your Jewishness.

(Regan) They also felt the pressure economically. In 1954, Nasser nationalized most industries. Jews were stripped of their businesses and it was hard to find work because of a 1947 law that restricted employment opportunities for non-citizens. Tens of thousands fled the country, in order to do so they were forced to surrender all of their assets and promise to never return. Gabbai was in the process of getting out in 1967, then the Six Day War began.

(Gabbai) We were waiting for the exit visas which were not easy to get. We were supposed to leave that Summer. Then the war came and we were rounded up. And we stayed. 

(Regan) Most remaining Jewish males were placed in internment camps with horrid conditions and rampant abuse.

(Gabbai) It was not pleasant, it was very bad. But certainly nothing to compare to the death camps of Europe. Nothing to compare. It’s very important to know because there was no death. The only thing we had in common was the lack of certainty of when to get out. It was indefinite. We never lost hope. But it was difficult not to know when the nightmare was going to end. That was most difficult part you had to deal with. The rest, physical level, you can deal with the physical level. But that aspect was difficult for us. When are we going to get out? When are they going to solve the whole middle east problem? Then we’d be there for the rest of our days.

(Regan) Gabbai spent three years in an Egyptian internment camp before he was released. Today even though relations between Egypt and Israel are pretty amicable, all things considered, the Jewish community of Egypt has been reduced to a tiny number of older women. Everyone else, including Gabbai, left. 

(Gabbai) They told us ‘the Red Cross is allowing you to get out. Sign here that you never come back’. I said ‘where do I sign?’ And signed that and they took us from the prison camps in handcuffs into a truck and then the truck to the airport. And from the airport to the plane inside. That’s when inside the plane they removed the handcuffs. And the plane was Air France. It flew out to Paris. 

(Regan) And shortly after that he made it to America. 

(Gabbai) When I landed here at JFK airport. It was January, a snowy night, and the music was playing ‘If I were a rich man. Yada yada yada…’ And I had seen Fiddler on the Roof in French in Paris so I recognize the melody. And when I made it to New York the first trip out of New York City was Philadelphia. I took the bus, came here, I loved it.

(Regan) It would take another 18 years for Gabbai to become the rabbi for Mikve Israel. In that time he worked in insurance, considered medical school, and served as a chazzan, or cantor, for Shearith Israel in New York. But eventually in 1988, the kid from Cairo who used to dream of Philadelphia became the rabbi of Philly’s oldest and most revered congregation. 

(Gabbai) What is very important for us to know. Is we live in a free country. And we should not take for granted the freedom we have in this country. We have freedom of religion. Anybody here can worship the way they want. Unfortunately, I speak with other people and they take that for granted. To the point unfortunately where they are negative they have negative opinion of this country. Some, I’m not saying a lot. They do not see the richness that we have. The blessing that we have. Everyday we have to thank G-d that you are here.  

(Regan) After growing up in a place where he had to hide his Judaism, Gabbai now proudly displays it. And he thinks just like how some people take America for granted, some also take their Judaism for granted. 

(Gabbai) Yes, there is assimilation, there are people who have dropped some aspect of Judaism and some who have maintained. We have maintained our tradition. We have not dropped it. Yet we are hundred percent American. Right? So we have a Protestant who is a Protestant American, a Catholic who is Catholic American, and a Black who’s American, you have a Jew who is American. Why should a Jew have to take some aspects of the Protestant Americans or the Catholic Americans? Why can’t they be Jewish American?! Like everybody else? Why not?

(Regan) This brings up a concept that has been discussed by other rabbis in this podcast. The idea movements like Reform and Conservative, which were born out of the European Emancipation, took on some Christian appearances to blend in better with their non-Jewish neighbors. Others say it was done to make Judaism more accessible to lay people and to be more relevant and meaningful for modern times. The question of how to blend tradition and modernity is debated by Jews all over. For Gabbai, the answer is a strict application makes for strong Judaism.  

(Gabbai) In 1789 when the ratification of the constitution was made, there was a celebration here in Philadelphia. And there was a celebration from every part of society including the clergy. And the rabbi of this congregation along with the pastor of Christchurch walked in the procession arm-in-arm together. At the end of the procession there was a table of kosher food for the Jewish delegation. So from that we learned that when we respect ourselves and our tradition other people respect us.

(Regan) Gabbai thinks assimilation is a big driver behind inter religious marriage. 

(Gabbai) It has been proven statistically that those who go to Jewish schools the rate of interfaith marriage is very small. The best approach to interfaith marriage is education. There’s no doubt about that. When people are proud of their heritage and want to maintain and practice that heritage they look for a spouse who has those same values and so the children will also have transmission from the parents to the children of that heritage.

(Regan) According to Pew Research, 44% of married Jewish people wed outside of the religion, a number that goes up with each new generation. This report also shows that percentage much larger for less observant Jews, although pride in Judaism is high across the board. Interfaith marriage rates are virtually zero for Orthodox Jews, but it’s not unheard of. So it’s a fact of life for the Jewish community and Gabbai says while he doesn’t support it, it should not be grounds to ostracize someone.

(Gabbai) First of all, you have to understand that in Judaism we have a very important principle that says, as G-d is merciful and compassionate, we have to be merciful and compassionate too with human beings. Very important aspect of Judaism. So you have a situation where someone has a lot of feelings about a person and it’s love and they want it to continue. The question is not will love continue. It’s will the same value be in this house? Is that what you want for your children? If that’s what you want, then I cannot do anything about it but I can help you out to work out to the best of our ability of how to do. We as rabbis in a position to advise to help out somebody, to give them some words of support. But I will tell you something. At the bottom line I will not officiate a wedding that is not two Jewish people. 

(Regan)  It’s all part of the changing face of American Judaism. However, Gabbai thinks there are some key things that all Jews should be unified on. 

(Gabbai) When it comes to political things. Many Jews lean to the left. You can lean to the left or the right it doesn’t matter. However, when it comes to issues that affect us globally we should be united. For instance, the issue of Israel has to unite all of us. It has become a very important issue. Because human beings very often realize the value of something when it is missing. When it is taken for granted, people do not give it as much value as it is. But when you have a country that is always struggling for its survival, survival, then we have to be very careful with what we do because that will affect the state itself.

(Regan) Israel and Israeli politics can make for some lively discussions. Many diaspora Jews will say they have a stake or a right or a responsibility to discuss the policies and actions of the Jewish State. Others counter by saying if you really want to criticize Israel or work to change its policies you must do so by living in the country and working from within. That belief Gabbai supports. 

(Gabbai) We are all Jews in this world yes of course we are one people. But those who elect their leaders their government are the Israelis themselves. We cannot tell them what to do because it’s a democratic system. I go one step further and say we should not criticize the politics of Israel in public. You have something to say? By all means go ahead and say it to them in private. But in public you are going to lead people to say ‘even the Jews are criticizing Israel. Therefore I can do it’. And therefore it’s a danger for Israel.

(Regan) As for the dangers Jews face in America, Gabbai doesn’t think much has changed with the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway. The difference now he says is it’s getting more violent and like other rabbis interviewed for this podcast, he worries that it could one day lead to a situation like in Europe, and other countries, where heavily armed guards are needed outside of synagogues. As for combating the hatred, education is key. 

(Gabbai) Many things can be solved by education. I’ll give an example. G-d forbid, G-d forbid if you are in a group of people and you say something that is racist against Blacks, where will you be standing? You can’t even hide under the table. If somebody says something against a Jew, some people will take it for granted. ’Small thing no big deal’. The same vociferous attack against that person who says something racist against a Black should be the same vociferous response when someone says something against Jews. Exactly of the same thing! Because we are all equal. Not because he’s Black you can do that, not because he’s Jew you can do that. No. We are all the same. So society has to think a person is an ephemera if somebody says this or that. It should be equally done. From the highest level of government to the lowest common people. Everyone should be the same things and the media should be the first one to bring that up clearly. 

(Regan) Gabbai has experienced a lot in his time. He’s lived in a country that went to war with Israel and he’s gone to prison for the quote “crime” of being Jewish. He’s been a stateless person, an immigrant, an insurance agent, the chazzan of a pre-United States congregation and the rabbi of another pre-United States congregation. For a man of tradition, he’s seen a lot of change. I asked him where he sees Judaism 40 years from now.  

(Gabbai) Oh I think it’s going to be wonderful 40 years from now. For those who keep the tradition. For those who do not keep the tradition the outlook is not so bright. They will be assimilated into the population the Protestant the Catholic, I don’t know who they’re going to imitate. But they will be nondescript American. Those who keep the tradition will be proud Jewish American. American Jews, proud. And they will continue what has been started from 1654 with the first Jews here. They will continue. Maybe less of numbers but it will be a good future.

(Regan) After my discussion with Rabbi Albert Gabbai, I hopped back in the rental car and continued on to Baltimore. The first hour out of Philly was silent, partially because I couldn’t figure out how to work the overcomplicated sound system in the rental car. But mostly I was digesting everything I had heard. The history, the modern day exodus and the tradition. And it seemed like a lot of things came full circle. I interviewed a man who fled pogroms in the old country before settling in Philadelphia, just like my ancestors had done. I went to the Bar Mitzvah of a cousin whose Hebrew name paid homage to my Great Grandparents. And five months after the end of my around the country road trip I went back out again and talked to more rabbis. And with every interview there was more to think about.  

(Regan) American Rabbi Project Pennsylvania: Out of Egypt was written and produced by me, Justin Regan. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider donating to this podcast. You can find out more by going to my website, and clicking on the donate tab up top. Thanks to Derek Povah for handling the web stuff and . Also thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vanderstoep, Dylan Ambrams and my parents for the assistance. Please feel free to reach out to me by emailing or follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and And until next time, Shalom and safe driving. 

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