Of the many deeply satisfying aspects of his rabbinate, Rabbi David Bassous is most passionate about Jewish education. “The greatest pleasure [for a rabbi] is seeing people coming to the classes and seeing them grow spiritually. It’s how rabbis recharge,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview.
Bassous, who retired after 30 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, was honored Feb. 23 at a gala dinner held at the synagogue. Close to 200 congregants, family members, and friends attended the event, which was co-chaired by Gloria and Ray Morris, congregation president.
“I will personally miss him in so many ways,” said Ray Morris. “And it’s not just me, but our entire congregation is going to miss his way of reaching out, helping out, and his love of Torah and teaching Torah.”
The dinner featured remarks by Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman of Congregation Ohav Emeth of Highland Park on behalf of the Vaad Harabonim of Raritan County; Solomon Bitton, co-founder and past president of Yeshiva Ben Porat Yosef of Paramus; and Haim Baruh, past president. Don Rushefsky served as master of ceremonies and Ray Morris made a presentation to Bassous. In addition, Rabbi Cantor Rafi Ish-Ran of Israel performed a musical tribute in honor of the rabbi and his family.
Baruh was synagogue president and head of the search committee when Bassous was hired; his first official duty was marrying Baruh’s son and daughter-in-law.
“We were a congregation with an aging membership and I knew the synagogue wouldn’t last if it was not revitalized. The new rabbi had to understand the dynamics as well as the shul’s Sephardic heritage. He was the perfect person for the job and remained so for all these years. He is a selfless, spiritual man with boundless love for his fellow Jews.”
Bassous transformed the congregation into a thriving center of Jewish life, according to Baruh. Over the course of his tenure, Etz Ahaim has grown substantially, attracting new members seeking a warm and welcoming
Rhonda and Gary Lillianthal joined Etz Ahaim the same week as Bassous.
“Rabbi Bassous attracted a whole new crop of young families. The noise of our toddlers was welcomed,” said Rhonda Lillianthal, who has Sephardic roots. “And, he had a grand vision. After his first year, he gave a ‘state of the synagogue’ address, during which he said he was going to start three daily minyans, replace three Torahs, and build a library. All of the old timers — you had to see the looks on their faces. And he did all of it.”
Even though they moved to West Orange 20 years ago, the Lillianthals maintain an out-of-town membership at Etz Ahaim and continue to turn to Bassous for counsel. Their son Ethan, who was 10 when they left Highland Park, insisted on being trained by Bassous in the Sephardic tradition for his bar mitzvah; the service took place at Etz Ahaim.
Congregation members agree that the rabbi’s teaching has immeasurably enriched their lives and is his enduring legacy. He created what he coined “Classes for the Masses,” bringing accessible Jewish education to hundreds of people — members and non-members — in ways both deeply spiritual and joyous.
Bassous is the author of “Jewish Law Meets Modern Challenges” and has also produced a wide variety of Torah tapes that are available for free download on podbean.com or TorahCentral.org.
After attending college in England and receiving an engineering degree, Bassous attended various yeshivot in England and Israel. He received semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the Shehebar Sephardic Center (Midrash Sephardi) in Jerusalem and passed the exams of the Israel Chief Rabbinate. He is also a mohel, sofer (scribe), and shochet (ritual slaughterer). Prior to joining Etz Ahaim in 1991, he was spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver, Canada.
Bassous also co-founded Ben Porat Yosef in Bergen County, a yeshiva that celebrates both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic heritage of its students.
Etz Ahaim has a distinctive history. According to its website, immigrants with roots in Salonika, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans settled in the New Brunswick area in the early 20th century and created a vital Sephardic community. In 1928, when ground was broken for the original synagogue building, it was the only Sephardic synagogue in New Jersey. Today, Etz Ahaim, home to both Ashenazi and Sephardi members, retains a Sephardi flavor and honors its roots and traditions with two sections of its prayer services in Spanish and Ladino.
The congregation will welcome Rabbi Daniel Cavalier as its new rabbi in July. Currently Cavalier is the spiritual leader of the Young Sephardic Community Center in Los Angeles, where he has served since 2013.
In March, Bassous and his wife, Clara, will fulfill their lifelong dream of making aliyah; four of their seven children live in Israel. He described their move as the fulfillment of the biblical command of “Lech Lecha,” to go to the land of Israel. “It is a call to us throughout the ages,” he said.
It’s a call he is ready to answer.