It was an email that, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. Still, it caught many shul members unaware and marked the end of a golden era at Congregation Etz Ahaim, the Sephardic synagogue in Highland Park.
The May 31 email’s subject line read: “Retirement of Rabbi Bassous” and the text of the email reported that “After 28 years of devoted service to Congregation Etz Ahaim and the entire Highland Park/Edison community, Rabbi Bassous plans on retiring in 2020.” The email also advised that a rabbinic search was underway and a nine-member rabbinic search committee, composed of recognized leaders in the shul, was overseeing the process.
The rabbi will be a very tough act to follow.
Rabbi Bassous has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Ahaim since August 1991.
He was born in Calcutta to parents of Iraqi descent, attended schools in London, and graduated college with an engineering degree. Rabbi Bassous received his semicha from the Shehebar Sephardic Center (Midrash Sephardi) in Jerusalem and passed the exams of the Israel Chief Rabbinate. From there he went to Vancouver where he was the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver, Canada, from 1986-1991.
According to the Etz Ahaim website: “Under Rabbi Bassous’s leadership, Congregation Etz Ahaim has grown substantially. He has instituted three daily services, as well as several classes for adults. The congregation recently dedicated a new bet midrash, as well as a large sukkah that can seat 100 people.” Aside from his teaching and pastoral activities, Rabbi Bassous is a mohel, sofer and shochet.
An article about Congregation Etz Ahaim in The Jewish Link of New Jersey in March 2017 glowingly describes the type of kehilla Rabbi Bassous has built: “(The shul) 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 ... and all are made to feel comfortable.”
In addition to his work with Etz Ahaim, Rabbi Bassous co-founded and teaches at Ben Porat Yosef, The Sephardic Yeshiva in Paramus. Prior to his service at Pen Porat Yeshiva, Rabbi Bassous served as the early childhood Judaic director at Magen David Yeshiva, in Brooklyn, for 10 years.
A prolific Torah teacher and writer, Rabbi Bassous has recorded a wide variety of Torah Tapes, written a set of halachic and hashkafic articles posted on the shul’s website, and authored two books, “Jewish Law Meets Modern Challenges” and “The Key to a Successful Life: Wisdom from the world’s oldest monotheistic religion.” Some of Rabbi Bassous’s audio classes are available on podbean, at Torah Central (click on “Bassous, Rabbi David” in the Teacher list), on TorahAnytime.org, and on iTunes podcast.
Rabbi Bassous and his wife Clara have seven children and several grandchildren.
In speaking with a few congregants, it is very clear that Rabbi Bassous has touched many lives very deeply.
“Rabbi Bassous has the ability to relate to all Jews regardless of their background and level of observance,” said Aaron Epstein of Highland Park, a member of the rabbinic search committee. “He can give sermons and classes that have a wide appeal and can be appreciated by people with both secular and religious backgrounds. He is very approachable, and with his warmth, energy and ability to engage he has built Etz Ahaim into a vibrant, warm and welcoming community. I hope we are able to find someone similar to Rabbi Bassous—a dynamic educator and a strong role model who is able to nurture the growth of the congregation and maintain its open and welcoming atmosphere.”
“Rabbi Bassous has been a fantastic rav,” said Rachel Weintraub of Edison. “He was the mohel for our son, Noam, slightly after he arrived. I’ve taken his Sunday a.m. women’s class from its inception and have learned a tremendous amount. I know my middot and my Torah knowledge have greatly improved due to Rabbi Bassous. He will be a tough act to follow! I’d love to see a replacement who is similar to him!”
“The community is losing a great rabbi and teacher,” said Albert Mitzner of Highland Park. “He is very dedicated to the congregants of Etz Ahaim and to the community as a whole. You don’t really replace a rabbi of his stature but hope the shul can find someone to continue to build on the foundation he created over the last 28 years. While it is a bittersweet moment for everyone, we are all happy for Rabbi Bassous to retire and be with his family in Eretz Yisrael.”
“Rabbi Bassous is one of the main reasons my wife and I and our family joined Etz Ahaim and come back week after week,” said David Tawil of Highland Park, another member of the rabbinic search committee. “He is a dynamic individual and we hope to find someone who can continue his remarkable legacy.”
The rabbinic search committee has shared their job criteria for the rabbi position with Yeshiva University and other rabbinic groups. They have reviewed over a dozen resumes at this point and will continue to do so until a suitable replacement is identified. David Tawil reports that they hope to hire a new rabbi in the months ahead to allow for some overlap between the incumbent rabbi and outgoing rabbi and for a smooth transition to take place.
By Harry Glazer