Leading the way for ‘Little Morocco’

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With a connection to his homeland, Rabbi Raphael Benchimol created a community at the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation


  • Under Benchimol’s guidance, MSC has led programs targeted at the Upper East Side Jewish community and beyond. Photo courtesy of Manhattan Sephardic Congregation

  • Under Benchimol’s guidance, MSC has led programs targeted at the Upper East Side Jewish community and beyond. Photo courtesy of Manhattan Sephardic Congregation

When Rabbi Raphael Benchimol was asked to become the Rabbi of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation (MSC) at the young age of 23, he could not refuse. Born and raised a Moroccan Jew, Benchimol was eager to transport the rich culture of his birthplace to his newfound home in the Upper East Side via a new type of congregation.

“As I always say, you can leave Morocco, but Morocco does not leave you,” said Benchimol.

Founded in 1990, MSC was originally created as a center for Torah study and worship for wandering congregants, specifically those with a Moroccan background and of Sephardic descent. At the time of its conception, Benchimol was adamant that Moroccan Jews should be able to experience their heritage and style of prayer while living in America.

“Being young and energetic, and having been given firsthand the opportunity to understand and appreciate the rich tradition of Moroccan Jewry, I felt that I had a larger purpose and was on a different kind of mission,” explained Benchimol, who, to this day, remains the rabbi of MSC, and is the author of several books.

But Benchimol’s connection to his homeland was present long before he decided to launch the first full-service Sephardic congregation on the Upper East Side.

“The Moroccan traditions, customs, prayer services, rituals and culture, and the awe and respect given to the rabbis, have been etched in my memory,” explained Benchimol.

Born in Rabat, Morocco, Benchimol always excelled in his Hebrew studies. After emigrating from Morocco to Miami, Florida at age 8, Benchimol continued his studies in the Landow Yeshiva in Miami and then earned his rabbinical ordination in 1988 from Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim, the Lubavitch seminary in Brooklyn, NY.

It was only after he heard about a group of Sephardic men seeking a Moroccan-born rabbi in Manhattan that he started to think about starting a congregation.

“The time was then ripe for the group to organize a Moroccan synagogue,” Benchimol said. “The rest is history.”

Under Benchimol’s guidance, MSC has led initiatives and programs targeted at the Upper East Side Jewish community and beyond. MSC currently hosts weekly Torah classes, free Hebrew school programs, singles events, weekday and Holiday services and a women’s monthly challah bake.

To further cater to the growing spiritual needs of the Upper East Side Jewish community, Benchimol created the Aleph Learning Center in 2002.

“With the Aleph Learning Center, we wanted to reach out beyond the walls of our own synagogue,” said Benchimol. The Center offers Jewish education, events, programs, and publications to encourage religious growth for Jews of all ages and backgrounds.

But Benchimol’s service to the Jewish community stretches beyond the limits of the Manhattan. In 2012, Benchimol received an award from the King of Morocco for rehabilitating and renovating the Jewish cemeteries and sacred sites in Morocco.

“I was deeply humbled and moved by it,” said Benchimol. “I believe it was an event not just for my honor, but also a way to pay tribute to a remarkable country, my birth country of Morocco, and to its royal family.”

Despite his accomplishments in Manhattan, Benchimol believes in the importance of recognizing one’s roots. He hopes to eventually create a space on the Upper East Side to house ancient Moroccan-Jewish artifacts to preserve the two thousand year heritage.

“In order to stand confidently and look forward to a positive future, one has to first look back into one’s past, family, ancestry, traditions and religion,” said Benchimol. “These are the things that shape, mold and make a person who he is today.”

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