By day, Joe Pessah is a marketing applications manager for a tech company in California’s Silicon Valley. In his spare time, however, the 62-year-old Mountain View resident pursues a much more unusual vocation.
Pessah is the “acting rav” for America’s largest Karaite community, made up of members of a now-tiny Jewish sect that parted ways with rabbinic Judaism more than a millennium ago. While adhering to the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, Karaites rejected claims of a divine origin for the Mishnah, or Oral Law, and the authority of the Talmud.
Karaites maintain many practices that set them apart from mainstream contemporary Jews (known to Karaites as “Rabbanites”). Hewing closely to what they see as the Tanakh’s plain meaning, Karaites do not extend the biblical prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk into a sweeping ban on mixing meat and dairy. (They’ll eat chicken and dairy together, and some will eat beef with dairy so long as they’re not from the same source.) On some matters though, the Karaites are more stringent than other Jews. For instance, they believe that the prohibition on kindling fires on the Sabbath bans cooking and electricity use. (That means hot plates and light timers are out.)
At one time, Karaites posed a vigorous challenge to rabbinic authority. Today, however, their global population is estimated at only about 30,000, most living in Israel, where they have a number of synagogues.
The Karaites’ only North American synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, serves a population of immigrants from Egypt. Pessah says that the region’s 800 Karaites are widely dispersed, some driving as many as 60 miles to attend Saturday-morning services (despite the Karaite belief that driving on the Sabbath is forbidden). Many have quietly integrated into the larger Jewish community, participating in synagogue life, joining youth groups and enrolling in Hebrew and day schools. To preserve their own unique traditions, they have set up a summer camp experience to teach young Karaites about their heritage.
Pessah arrived in the Bay Area in 1970, having fled Egypt with his wife, Remy. Pessah’s exodus followed a three-year stint in a prison camp, where he was beaten and tortured as the Nasser regime stepped up its persecution of the country’s dwindling but ancient Jewish community.
He played a key role in reconstituting an organized Karaite community here in the United States in the 1980s. Since there are no Karaite rabbis in America, Pessah, who had sometimes led prayers as a youth in his native Cairo, has served as the community’s de facto spiritual leader. Prayer services were held first in private homes, then in a local Conservative shul and since 1994 in the Karaites’ own Daly City synagogue.
Last week, Pessah and San Francisco’s Karaite community made history: He presided at what is believed to be the first Karaite conversion ceremony since 1465. Under a new conversion policy approved earlier this year by Karaite religious authorities in Israel, 14 proselytes from around the world embraced Karaite Judaism in a July 31 ceremony at B’nai Israel.
Pessah spoke with the Forward about this recent milestone in Karaite history, his work as “acting rav” and the challenges of preserving Karaite identity in America.
What does being the San Francisco Karaite community’s “acting rav” entail?
Conducting the services, and officiating marriages, and officiating brit milah , and explaining the parsha and prayers.
You’re not a trained religious leader, correct?
Yes, I am not a trained leader.
How did you wind up in this position?
This is what has been the trend in recent years. We did not have any yeshivas, and whoever learned on his own and is recognized to be fit to conduct the service becomes a hazzan , and the leader of all the hazzans becomes a rabbi or a “rav.” “Rav” is a teacher and a rabbi, and there is in the United States no other formal learning or teaching.
What sort of preparation did you have so that you gained the level of knowledge in order to do this?
Constantly being on the job, every Saturday, and interfacing with people. They ask questions. We ask the rabbis of Israel, and I could be the focal point for that.
Do Karaites also take advantage of the resources of the larger non-Karaite San Francisco Jewish community, educational resources and such?
My children went to Hebrew day schools, and other children did the same thing. But when it comes to the bar mitzvah, we took them and trained them as hazzanim , able to conduct our prayers. At the same time, when there is a marriage between a Karaite and a Rabbanite, more than once the rabbis and I will be officiating the same wedding. So we have maintained good relations with all the community of the Jewish people — invited to weddings, bar mitzvahs, and celebrated holidays together.
Do you find that other Jews know much about Karaism?
No, they don’t know much about Karaism. We have been going to synagogues on leil Shabbat and giving lectures, all on invitation. They want to know how we practice our tradition, how we survive without being in the talmudic tradition, how our life was in Egypt, what happened to us historically. All this was a subject of interest.
Was it difficult to re-establish a Karaite community here?
At the beginning, people didn’t want to say that they are Karaite, because they don’t want to be persecuted anymore. They had enough in Egypt. And then when they found that the Rabbanites are so eager and interested in knowing the culture, it became a point of “Wow, we’re something special. So let’s tell them who we are.”
So you were well received by the local Jewish community?
Once they saw the dedication of our people to learn — and really coming from a difficult environment — our brothers, the Rabbanites, had compassion on us. And they helped us. They gave us a room in their synagogue, and then we prayed during Shabbat and the festivals. So it was a big brother helping the younger brother.
How has your community viewed the issue of marriage to non-Karaites?
The community in Egypt has roots of over 1,000 years. Even though the two Jewish quarters — the Karaite and the Rabbanite — were contiguous on the same street, and they lived together in Egypt harmoniously, marriages were not allowed except for very special cases. That’s started to change. At the beginning, when we first came to America, there was almost no intermarriage, because that generation was strongly decided not to intermarry. And then, once the community started to send their children to schools, and they told their children to marry Karaites, and they looked around and there were no Karaites around, it was impossible to follow. So the culture changed to be more accepting of marrying other Jews.
Are a lot of Karaites marrying non-Jews? Or are they marrying “Rabbanite” Jews?
So your community has been more welcoming to marriages with non-Karaite Jews?
Versus outside? Absolutely. Of course, because at least when there is Pesach, they will celebrate Pesach, when there is a feast, when there is a prayer, they will do it. You will make the decision at one time what is better: Lose your children to assimilation or integrate within the Jewish world. And the latter is more viable for continuing.
How did it feel to participate in the recent conversion ceremony?
It is an overwhelming feeling — that we are open. In my speech, I said that we had surrounded ourselves with a wall. No one enters, but anybody can go out.
Will Karaites proselytize now?
We do not have missions to convince people.
But when people come to you?
We have turned down many, many. As long as there is a process, and it’s not something that anybody can just do. They go through so much to become Jewish. Whoever in his state of mind has decided already, he should be encouraged.
Your synagogue has also adapted Karaite traditions in some ways to fit the modern American context, right, like driving to synagogue?
Driving to synagogue has been forced on us, otherwise there would be no prayer.
And a woman’s role in prayer, is that different than it was in Cairo?
The woman’s role remained the same. For the record, the woman can pray and sing in the synagogue chants, the shirim , but she cannot become a hazzan to conduct the prayers.
Has the style of worship changed?
No. But you see more chairs than we used to have in Egypt, or in Israel. Mostly the elders are occupying the chairs. We normally prostrate. So there is a change. So you see more people sitting, of course with no shoes. We enter the sanctuary with no shoes. And we prostrate, according to what is written in the Torah.
So the issue of driving on the Sabbath is the main accommodation that’s been made?
You ask me a very important question. Who makes the accommodation? Who allows it? I cannot tell the worshipers it’s okay to drive, because I know it’s not okay. So if they rely on my opinion to tell them, “Go ahead, we bless you, it’s okay” — it’s not correct. Someone will ask me, “Where is this written?” I will be immediately challenged. Everyone knows it is wrong, that it is a sin, and that’s the difference. No Karaite rabbi has the authority to allow it.
Do you drive to synagogue?
Yes. I’m 45 miles away.
But you think it’s a greater good to attend?
It’s great to attend, but I would rather not drive and still go to the synagogue, because I had the sweet flavor of doing that in Egypt. And it’s a different thing. When I go to Israel, and I go to the synagogue walking, it is just a great, blessed feeling.
Has life been good here in America, aside from having to drive to synagogue?
Yes, life is good in America, of course. But faith is less strong in America than it used to be in Egypt or in Israel.
Are you optimistic about Karaite Judaism’s future here?
I am looking at Karaism as an evolution. It will evolve, it will change, it will not be the same way exactly in the practice. But the idea will always continue to exist. The idea has existed from the very beginning, and Karaism at the very beginning may have been different. We are always probing in a very small window in history, while you and I are talking about what has changed from before and then what will change in the future. So we have to accept the change. One day all of Judaism will finally settle that only the word of the Tanakh is divine, and we should all go back to it.