I attend a monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering where women from different shuls come together and learn valuable insights from the Torah while we nosh on snacks. At a particular meeting last year one of the women who recently moved to Dallas from Teaneck, New Jersey brought up how in her new synagogue people assume she converted to Judaism because of the color of her skin and very heavy Spanish accent. It bothered her so much she started to cry. I and another woman expressed sympathy and stated that we get the question “Are you Jewish?” because of our non-Ashkenazi features and brown skin, so we could relate to her struggle. I find this perplexing since Jews come in all colors and hues.  Thousands of years ago Jews were much darker complexion due to the region in which we lived. I wanted to find out more about the diversity of Jews in Dallas in hope of helping overcome this misconception that you have to look a certain way or talk a certain way to be considered Jewish.

Marcela Abadi Rhodes in Panama
with her sister Ceci Abadi Katz

for a Torah dedication.

Ironically, in the early 20th century up until the 1940’s and 1950’s, when a mass immigration of Jews were coming from Europe, they were labeled as not “white,” but of the “Jewish” or “Hebrew” race. During these times, racially motivated laws were directed towards African-Americans, Jews, and Asians that restricted where they could live and socialize. Many spoke Yiddish and lived in tightly knit communities where they dressed the same. This has changed over time due to assimilation and a desire among Jews to adapt to American culture. In the past fifty years, there has been a new migration of Jews to America, non-whites who don’t speak Yiddish, but communicate in Urdu, Igbo, Farsi, Spanish and other unique dialects. 

“In my Bene Israel community back in India our services were also in Hebrew, but we had different songs for the liturgy. We always kept Shabbat and the major holidays, but did not know about Sukkkot, Purim or Hannukah since we left the land of Israel sometime between 175–163 or 722 BCE due to persecution.” 

When June Penkar, now a Dallasite, arrived in New York in the early 1980s from Bombay, India she attended a synagogue service in lower Manhattan and felt she could not find any familiarity in the services she was so fond of. Though the liturgy was the same, the pronunciations sounded very nasal and foreign. 

“In my Bene Israel community back in India our services were also in Hebrew, but we had different songs for the liturgy. We always kept Shabbat and the major holidays, but did not know about Sukkkot, Purim or Hannukah since we left the land of Israel sometime between 175–163 or 722 BCE due to persecution.” 

Oral history among the Bene Israel (sons of Israel) maintains that seven couples were shipwrecked on the coast of Bombay and the local inhabitants welcomed them. They adopted Hindu names (ending in -kar) and were known as the shanwar teli, or “oil men” because back in Israel they pressed oil for the temple and for consumption. The shanwar teli abstained from work on the Jewish Sabbath, practiced circumcision, recited the Shema on ceremonial occasions, celebrated several major festivals, and observed Jewish dietary laws. In India, Bene Israel kept kosher and butchered their own meat but, out of respect for the Hindus who welcomed them, they only ate turkey, fish, lamb and chicken since Hindus consider cows to be sacred. In the mid-1700s, teachers from the Dutch East India Company (people such as David Ezekiel Rahabi, who is so fascinating he is worthy of his own profile), rediscovered the Bene Israel and helped the Jewish community revive normative Jewish traditions that had been forgotten but, over the centuries, the Indian Jewish community developed distinctive rituals of their own.

One particular tradition that the Bene Israel keep that is unique is when they move into a new home they purify the home with prayers and a song called Eliyahu Hanavi that is sung differently and has more stanzas than what is sung in American synagogues. A dish of water, rice, salt and spices is brought into the home and a bracha is recited to bless the new home. 

June Penkar says that Bene Israel start preparing their homes two months in advance of Pesach. “Every Jewish home in my community in India had a yogurt starter year round in the kitchen and dried spices, except on Pesach. All those items had to be removed and only fresh spices – no dried spices – were used and ground by each woman in her house. We bought fresh turmeric, mint, fengugreek and ground it ourselves, which took so much time because we did not want any trace of chametz in the house. We made everything from scratch so we spent lots of time in the kitchen before and during Pesach.”

Hadassah life member Victoria Frank, owner of Touch of Eden Massage Therapy in Plano, recalls fondly how Pesach was celebrated in her birth country of Biafra, located in South East Nigeria: “It was a joyous time because the women in our community helped each other get their homes in order. Three families would share the price of a lamb and pay the shochet  (person who slaughters the meat kosher style). We sang songs both in Igbo and English.” 

Mrs. Frank comes from a group of Jews known as the Umu Igbo who migrated to West Africa from Israel after the fall of the destruction of the First Temple. 

“We were known as the Hebrews, but the local inhabitants pronounced it as Igbo or Eboo, so the name remained as Igbo. We have always observed Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, except for Sukkot and Purim. Also, circumcision has always been on the eighth day for baby boys. We do not do female circumcision like our Muslim neighbors.”

Niddah was also kept strictly,” Victoria says. “You would not see a woman enter the synagogue during her menstrual period or for a few weeks after giving birth because she would be at home allowing her body to heal. After a woman gives birth, a female in-law or the mother would come and bathe the new mother in herbs and warm water to help her body heal from the journey of childbirth and, for several weeks, new mothers were fed soups filled with greens and spices that helped flush the body.”

The Igbos are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, where 162 million inhabitants live and practice Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Due to persecution, British colonialism, and tribal wars, many Igbos converted to Islam and Christianity by force, while some observed Judaism in secret and passed down traditions to their children in hope of preserving their heritage.  Among the Igbos is an oral story passed down from generation to generation that the sons of Gad – Eri, Arodi and Areli – established klans and kingdoms when they migrated to the fertile lands of West Africa in southeastern Nigeria. The names of those towns still exist today as Owerri, Umuleri, Arochukwu, and Aguleri. 

Many Igbos make yearly pilgrimages to Israel to reconnect spiritually to the homeland. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is admired in the Igbo community as a great leader and was applauded for acknowledging the Biafra genocide of 1967-1969 that killed more than three million Igbos. In his speech delivered to a crowd at Yad Vahsem in 2017, he implored the world to not remain indifferent as they did during the Holocaust and the genocides in Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and Syria. The Biafran Genocide still haunts the Igbo community as they are currently seeking cessation from Nigeria in a movement called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). 

“Before 1960,” Victoria says, “Biafra was separate from Nigeria, until the British declared we were all one group. But we are not. We have been fighting for our independence from the Nigerian government since 1967 and simply want to be governed by our own people who know our ancient laws and customs.” 

Jews not only immigrated to India and West Africa but all over the world, many settling in South America. Marcela Abadi Rhoads, an architect who resides in North Dallas, comes from a strong and proud lineage of Syrian Jews who made Panama City, Panama their home. Marcela’s paternal grandfather was a chazzan who left Syria and moved to Panama when he heard several Syrians were flourishing in their businesses.

“The Jewish population is very strong and very close knit in Panama; we marry within our community and have our own businesses in areas of finance, medicine, international trade and tourism. Nobody really likes to leave Panama to move anywhere unless it is for college, but they always come back. We have a self-imposed ghetto per se, because we created our own communities and prefer to stay and do business among our community members.”  

When Marcela’s mother Linda Homsany divorced her husband it shocked the community because divorce is not common among the tight knit community in Panama. Marcela’s mom was born in Brooklyn, New York when her grandparents lived there for a few years. After the divorce from her father, her mother decided it was best to leave Panama with her two daughters and move to the USA for a fresh start. Marcela and her sister Ceci visit Panama often for the high holidays and family celebrations. 

A unique and endearing tradition that has been passed down is that children are named after their grandparents. Marcela was named in honor of her paternal grandmother and her sister was named in honor of her maternal grandmother Cecila. The names are predominantly in Spanish, Hebrew, and English. Words of endearment are expressed in Arabic in homes since a majority of Panamanian Jews came from Syria. 

Marcela adds that “Syrian Jews are very connected to Torah. I grew up keeping Shabbat and all the High Holidays in a spiritual way, though not the ‘religious’ way. In college in Austin I wanted to hold a seder in my home. When I approached the campus Chabad rabbi to ask how I should do it, he assumed I did not know how to observe Pesach, though I had been keeping it stringently since childhood.” 

The Jewish people are in some ways a homogenous group who share distinct beliefs, culture, traditions, and rituals that have been passed down from generation to generation, but we cannot deny that thousands of years in the diaspora has impacted our community.  We live a delicate balance. While we have learned to adapt to life in the nations and among indigenous people where we have been scattered, we continue to hold on to our unique identities. Dallas is blessed to be home to Jews from every background. It is vital to be sensitive and embrace other Jews and not compartmentalize them to fit our own perceptions of who is a Jew. 

Bracha Taft resides with her husband Dovid, in Dallas, Texas, where she stays active volunteering for Jewish causes and raising an energetic two year old. She enjoys learning calligraphy and watercolor painting. 

June Penkar with her
husband Dan and their
children, Alan and Karen.

We had belonged to synagogues in Chicago and Minneapolis before moving to Dallas and were readily accepted there. When we moved to Dallas we did not expect any less. 
Sadly, the Rabbi at the first Dallas synagogue we joined asked us a lot of questions trying to ascertain if we were really Jews. The questions made us feel uncomfortable, as well as insulted. However, we joined anyway. The congregation there was very lovely and made us feel welcome. After a few years, we moved to our current synagogue. 
Our younger child, Alan, was in middle school when we moved to Dallas and we had no trouble getting him into Solomon Schechter Academy (Ann and Nate Levine Academy). He was accepted there and did very well. Our daughter, Karen, was in BBYO during her high school years and took on leadership roles in her chapter. 
Overall, our family has been well integrated into the Jewish community. I have served as Dallas Chapter President of Hadassah, participated in the Melton program, worked part time on a special project with the Melton School at the JCC, then worked for four years at the JCRC on a special project called the Public Education Initiative (PEI) to make sure that everything about Jews, Judaism, and Israel was accurately portrayed in the newest editions of the Social Studies/History books in all of Texas. I participate in adult Jewish learning at my synagogue and am active in Sisterhood. 
The Dallas Jewish community now accepts Jews from faraway lands because so many of us have made Dallas our home. We collectively belong to synagogues all over the DFW metroplex and all those Rabbis know us. Our children have attended Akiba, Yavneh, Solomon Schechter and all the religious schools at local synagogues. The non-Ashkenazi diaspora is as much a part of the fabric of Dallas Jewish society as it is in Israel. 
June Penkar

Lili Cohen

My name is Lili and I was born and raised in Tiberias, Israel an old, pretty little town up in the northern Galilee. There are four holy cities in the land of Israel: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzfat, and Tiberias! Tiberias sits on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, what we call the Kinneret because it is shaped like King David’s harp. In Hebrew, a harp is a kinor. 
My parents came to Israel from Iraq. My father was born in the city of Mosel and my mom was born in Baghdad. Mosul is the capital of Nineveh, the region where the story of Yona the prophet  happened. Sadly, most of the Jews in Iraq were forced to leave Iraq and have never returned. 
In April 1986, when I was only 18 years old, I arrived in the United States. I lived in New York for nearly a year before moving to Dallas, where I have lived since early 1987. I worked as a nanny to a Jewish family.  I was very fortunate to find a Jewish family to work with and they were thrilled to have a Jewish Israeli Nanny. I have happily stayed here for more than 20 years, working and making friends. I realize now that I have lived in Dallas, Texas longer than I lived in Tiberias, Israel. When people ask me where I am from, I say “Israel is my homeland, but Dallas, Texas is my home.” 
Back in those early days, the Dallas Jewish community was young and small but, thank G-d, I met the right people! People always invited me for holidays, to their family celebrations, and other Jewish gatherings. So, I made Dallas my home and my friends became my second supporting family. As Dallas grew, so did the Jewish community. 
In January 2016, I became a U.S. citizen. It was a long way and quite thrilling to get to this moment that I dreamed of. I am very grateful for this country and to the Jewish community for supporting the State of Israel. I am quite passionate when it comes to politics and I am not shy voicing my opinions and defending this wonderful country and the State of Israel. 
I am very happy to see the Dallas Jewish community thriving with religious schools, kosher restaurants, the availability of so many kosher groceries, and so on…and I thank G-D that I am a Dallas Jew.

Victoria Frank

Each day, we pray to Hashem to gather all the Israelites, Jews, from the four corners of the earth; do we really mean what we are asking for? Does four corners of the world mean America and Britain only? Sometimes, the less informed say that there are no Jews in Africa, but they totally forgot that the Israelites were from Africa, they were all born in Africa. 
I had unforgettable experiences, one with a woman and another with a well known guy in our community who had a hard time acknowledging that Judaism is a religion and also a culture for so many people around the world. When this woman discovered that I was not a convert she came and apologized to me. Twice. I really gave her a lot of credit because “I am sorry” is never easy to say. The man never apologized to me, but Hashem removed him from our society to another state. 
I would like people to have more knowledge of our history and understand that Judah is not the only tribe among the Israelites. Not all Jews are Caucasian. People should know that there are Jews of every color scattered around the world and many live here in Dallas! 
Victoria Frank