Beyond “Ashki-normativity:” Fostering Sephardic Identity at YU

By: Ruchama Benhamou  |  April 2, 2024

By Ruchama Benhamou, Managing Editor

Throughout my time in Stern College for Women, I have been awarded the privilege to express my Jewish identity in an openly safe environment. I have never had to justify my faith in the corridors of my university’s campus, or to professors who are openly antisemitic, or to the “peaceful” protests for Palestine. Never on this campus have I been afraid to wear my Jewish star across my chest as armor against the cruelties of the world. However, with all the benefits of freedom of expression and association, comes a daunting challenge of insular pressure to conform to the “Ashki-normative” standards within YU. 

As someone who has grown up in an Ashnekaz environment their whole life, I have always struggled with my Sephardic identity. What was done in school was different from what was done at home and in the kenisa (shul). I grappled with this narrowed version of Jewish faith and practice throughout my childhood education through high school. When I attended seminary, even though it was primarily Ashkenaz, they offered many courses on great Speahrdic thinkers like the Rambam, as well as the embracement of broader Israeli and Mizrachi culture. I felt for the first time being Sephardic was not negative or incorrect, but a true representation of the development of law and tradition of Judaism. 

I assumed college would be the same. I was told that Stern was a place of Jewish diversity in every respect. Although that is true, and there is a massive Sephardic presence with the establishment of its own club, it begs the question: Why is there a need to even have a Sephardic club? There is no Ashkenaz club. Why do we need to fight to gain shabbatons or Sephardic minyanim for Shabbat? Why do we need to chase the Ashkenazi administration to include us in their programming? Why are there so few Sephardic classes offered each semester? 

I cannot answer all of these questions. It is beyond my power. But what I can do is spread awareness to start a conversation. Yeshiva University in its mission statement declares, “For Undergraduate Students: We bring wisdom to life by combining the finest, contemporary academic education with the timeless teachings of Torah. It is Yeshiva’s unique dual curriculum, which teaches knowledge enlightened by values that helps our students gain the wisdom to make their lives both a secular and spiritual success.” Torah as a universal creed is not solely Ashkenazi or Sephardic, it is the synthesis and socio-historical development of  the two throughout time. Yet why here in YU as the “flagship Jewish university” do we have such vivid singularity within its teachings of Judaism and its foundations? How come the one university known all over the world for proudly proclaiming its Jewish and Zionist identity, is the one place that does not truly cater to all kinds of Jews?

It is my firm belief that the administration does not intentionally produce this “Ashki-normative” environment. I think that due to the large number of Ashkenazi students, they have created a general Judaic curriculum to accommodate the masses that make up this university. However, alongside the Askenazi population, we must recognize the vivid Sephardic customs. We, the Speahrdim of YU make our campuses diverse and rich with culture. To truly embrace our diversity, we must communicate the message that we want more. Together, we can start a much-needed and long overdue conversation about the limited Sephardic curriculum on campus. The limited inclusion. Together, we can begin to take action for more representation, for more Sephardic classes, more Sephardic shabbatons and minyanim, and more Sephardic shiurim. This can only be accomplished together.