Nestled within the full-service Jewish community of Highland Park stands the only Sephardic synagogue in Middlesex county, Synagogue of the Sephardic Congregation Etz Ahaim. Its unassuming building sits parallel to the main thoroughfare running through the small town, which is somewhat reminiscent of a shtetl, complete with neighborhood kosher eateries and amenities.
Headed by Rabbi David Bassous, this dedicated membership is well known for its friendliness. With an all-volunteer staff, other than the rabbi, Etz Ahaim members coexist in a way that is hard to find elsewhere. The goal of this diverse shul is for young and old to have a place where they feel welcome and can daven without interruption. Attendees and members encompass a wide range of backgrounds, from Brazilians to Russian baal teshuvas, and all are made to feel comfortable. While the synagogue is Orthodox, the congregants vary widely in their observance.
At Etz Ahaim, prayer is conducted with a minimal amount of talking, but with much singing and reading out loud, which results in a lengthy but very enjoyable service. There is never a concern for a minyan on Shabbat; 100 to 120 people come on a weekly basis. People who want to learn more about Judaism, some of whom are in the process of converting, flock to Etz Ahaim.
Congregants at Etz Ahaim know that their presence is counted on and can consistently be found davening at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and 8:45 a.m. on Shabbat. Many Ashkenazi Jews come to hear the special tunes used on Fridays, many of which are heritage based and of Ladino origin.
A congregational lunch on Shabbat is prepared by one of the volunteers. The rabbi shares words of inspiration at the kiddushes, which are always varied and health oriented.
Word is spreading about this welcoming community, with its super-friendly Orthodox Sephardic shul. People from Brooklyn, looking to escape the high prices and live in a comprehensive Jewish environment, continually express interest. Highland Park boasts three mikvahs, and is also surrounded by an eruv.
The shul holds social events, such as wine and cheese tastings, and has an active sisterhood. There are two social halls in the building, which are available to rent at a competitively low price.
Currently there is no Hebrew School or preschool at Etz Ahaim, but they are tossing the idea around. They do have classrooms that could be used for these purposes.
Much of the credit for the success of the shul goes to the rabbi and his strength as an educator. He is the co-founder of, and a teacher at, Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, a unique Orthodox yeshiva day school offering all studies in Hebrew. Born in Calcutta and of Iraqi descent, the rabbi was trained in London and Israel, and is a fountain of Torah knowledge. He imbues the synagogue’s large number of Torah classes with depth.
The rabbi teaches at all levels, and covers all topics and disciplines in his classes, and people are so interested that they often dial in and listen on their way to work. Classes are conducted every day of the week for many different groups, including a beginner’s Talmud class on Tuesdays and a very advanced kabbala class on Wednesdays. There are women’s classes, classes to teach the youth how to read Torah and classes on Jewish meditation. Extra classes are added when there is a yahrzeit of a special rabbi or other historical figure.
After shacharit every day, the rabbi gives a brief d’var Torah. On Sundays, there is breakfast at the shul. The rabbi teaches during breakfast and then conducts a one-hour women’s class. Before daily mincha/maariv, the rabbi holds a 30-minute class.
Whatever one’s level of understanding, with Rabbi Bassous at the helm, it is easy to feel engaged in whatever is being taught. He has written several books and has 300 to 400 recorded podcasts, so there is never a dearth of topics to discuss.