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Two Seattle Jewish day schools now led by Sephardic rabbis

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

By Beth Jacoby

Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS) in March chose Rabbi Yehuda Gabay as the new head of school, the first Sephardic person to lead the nearly 50-year-old modern Orthodox coed Jewish high school.

This means there are now two Sephardic rabbis leading day schools in the Seattle area. The second is Rabbi Benjy Owen, head of school of Seattle Hebrew Academy (SHA), Seattle’s first and oldest Jewish day school.

Rabbi Gabay comes to NYHS from the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School, where he was the associate principal. Prior to Cincinnati, he spent more than five years in Jewish day schools in both Panama and Costa Rica. Rabbi Gabay has been in the field of education for more than 20 years and has led initiatives in change management, 21st Century education, strategic planning, curriculum design and active learning. He has an impressive research agenda and has been a guest lecturer on topics including educational technology, blended learning, project-based learning, integrated studies, and differentiated instruction. He brings a balanced and research-based blend of traditional Jewish instruction and innovative trends in education.

Gabay is joined by his wife Haya and their young daughter. Both Rabbi and Haya are native Spanish speakers of Moroccan Jewi

sh descent. Haya is from Madrid, Spain, and Rabbi Gabay is from the Dominican Republic. Both grew up with Ladino in their households and respective traditions, in addition

to Haketia (a Judeo-Spanish Moroccan language).

Rabbi Gabay expressed his excitement in joining a community with such an entrenched Sephardic tradition. He has been to many Spanish-speaking communities, including Panama, where he was the Judaic studies director for 10 years at the Instituto Alberto Einstein. However, the minhagim/traditions were largely of Syrian origin.

“My first visit to Seattle was a delight and quite eye opening. I was a guest at the home of Ben and Lea Lipman for Shabbat dinner, where we sang familiar traditional Pizmonim (Sephardic melodies) together,” he said. “On Shabbat morning, at Sephardic Bikur Holim, I was thrilled to hear honors being auctioned in Ladino.” Prior to visiting Seattle, Rabbi Gabay knew that Seattle was home to an active Sephardic community, but he did not realize to what extent, and how aligned it would be with his family’s Sephardic background. “I felt instantly at home. And that feeling wa

s a game changer for me in my desire to move to Seattle and lead NYHS,” he said.

Rabbi Gabay said he was equally impressed during his first visit to the NYHS campus, where he participated in “a beautiful Shachrit

service” led by a Sephardic student leader who he describes as having an “excellent command of tefillah, including very accurate pronunciation and nusach (liturgy).”

Jason Feld, NYHS’s outgoing head of school, said he is thrilled that Rabbi Gabay is taking over the helm of the Mercer Island school. “NYHS is a special place where we work hard to include minhagim (customs) from our Sephardic, Ashkanazic and Mizrachi families. With such a vibrant Sephardic community, it is wonderful to have leadership reflective of that in two of Seattle’s oldest Jewish day schools. I expect Rabbi Gabay will be embraced by the whole Jewish community.”

Rabbi Owen, meanwhile, was raised in the Seattle Sephardic community and served as dean of Judaics and assistant head of school at NYHS from 1996 to 2015. He

left the Seattle area to serve as head of school at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tenn. before returning to Seattle in summer 2022 to

become head of school at SHA.

“Of greatest significance to me is for the heads of our community’s schools to lead our schools in building the Seattle Jewish community and educating its children in Judaic and general studies,” Owen said. “Successful heads use their values, education,

background, and character to advance their schools, and a Sephardic head of school - because of heritage and/or minhag, has an

advantage in connecting the school’s mission with the Sephardic families of our city while also reaching out and connecting with the entire Seattle Jewish community.”

Rabbi Owen reflects on the historical perspective of the relationship and context of Seattle Sephardim and Jewish day schools pointing out that, “the Seattle Sephardic community places a high value on Jewish day school education. Children of the Seattle Sephardic community have attended

Jewish day schools since the Seattle Hebrew Academy first opened in 1947. Sephardic benefactors have been strong supporters of Jewish day school education in the city.”

Seattle’s largest Jewish philanthropy, the Samis Foundation, which invests heavily in Jewish day school education in Greater Seattle, was founded by Sam Israel a”h, a Sephardic shoemaker who came to Seattle as a young man from the Island of Rhodes in 1919.

Rabbi Owen also noted the harmony that exists in Seattle between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities and believes that the appointment of two Sephardic heads of school is an indication of this harmony. Rabbi Gabay’s formal Jewish and secular education is multifaceted. He studied in an Ashkenazic yeshiva, which he explains gives him an appreciation for “both worlds.” Like Rabb

i Owen, Rabbi Gabay is impressed by the “achdut” (unity) within the Seattle community that is a beautiful and respectful blend of traditions.

[Beth Jacoby is a lifelong Seattleite and Director of Admissions for Northwest Yeshiva High School. A version of this article first appeared in The Sephardic Brother, June 2023]


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